The Traveler’s Guide to Philippine Festivals

Take this virtual tour of the season's most interesting Philippine celebrations, some of which have intriguing origin stories and unique practices.

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Whether it’s to celebrate a patron saint, historic event or local delicacy, Filipinos will find any excuse to throw a massive party. Most traditional festivals are religious in nature, historically rooted in town fiestas held to honor a patron saint or venerated image. During Spanish colonial rule, these celebrations were instrumental in spreading Roman Catholicism across the country. Other popular festivals, founded more recently, are cultural events — often established by local governments to boost tourism and to promote the area’s food, crafts or attractions.

For whatever reason they are held, Philippine festivals are celebrated with much colorful fanfare, pageantry and joie de vivre. While some of these celebrations have been called off this year — don’t worry, it’s only temporary! — now is a good time to reacquaint yourself with the stories behind the feasts. Mark these down on your calendar, if not for this year, then for the next.

Moriones Lenten Rites

Marinduque

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The Catholic Holy Week, the final week of Lent (which falls on April 5 to 11 this year), is the commemoration of Jesus Christ’s passion, death and resurrection — and as such is one of the most important celebrations held throughout the Catholic-dominant country. One of the most fascinating places to witness Lenten traditions is Marinduque, a bucolic island that comes alive with one-of-a-kind rituals and religious events. Throughout the week, Passion plays called senakulo are held at the town centers, retelling important episodes from the Bible. The provincial capital of Boac stages the grandest productions on the island.

Religious fervor peaks on Good Friday when male flagellants called antipos flog themselves as a form of ritual atonement. By mid-morning, the Via Crucis — “the Way of the Cross”, a dramatic reenactment of Jesus’ final hours — begins, performed throughout the streets of Boac and accompanied by the eponymous moriones, masked penitents portraying the Roman centurions guarding the crucifixion.

Processions are held in the afternoon. One such is held in the town of Gasan, led by hooded men carrying bamboo clappers, followed by a group of barefoot female devotees garbed in black and wearing headdresses of leaves. Here, you can also see how Filipino Catholicism incorporates indigenous beliefs and practices: Village healers brew tawak — a bitter herbal potion believed to protect drinkers from venomous bites, and which can only be made on Good Friday, the most sorrowful day of the Catholic calendar.

On Easter Sunday, moryong bulaklakan — penitents whose masks are decorated with flowers — march the streets of Mogpog, the town where the tradition originated in the 1880s. The parade culminates with a re-enactment of the search for the martyred Saint Longines. A key figure in the Moriones rites, he was the Roman centurion who converted to Christianity after his blind eye was healed by Jesus’ blood. fb.com/morionesfestival

 

Rodeo Masbateño

Masbate

Photo by Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Grab your cowboy hat if you’re going to Masbate City, the Rodeo Capital of the Philippines, for a five-day rodeo festival from April 14 to 18. First held in 1993, Rodeo Masbateño draws cowboys and cowgirls from across the country — dressed in full American West-style regalia — to compete in several events that celebrate the local cattle and ranching industry. Celebrations kick off with a parade of horseback riders, followed by livestock shows, street barn dance competitions and beef cooking contests. A must-see event is the cattle drive through the city streets — a reenactment of how Masbate’s ranchers brought herds of cattle to the port. The biggest highlight of the festival is the Rodeo National Finals held at the city’s open-air arena — the only permanent structure built for rodeo in the country — where participants show off their skills in heart-stopping challenges like bull riding, steer wrestling, team roping and cattle lassoing. fb.com/rodeofestival

 

Viva Vigan Binatbatan Festival of the Arts

Ilocos Sur

Photo by Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

The picturesque city of Vigan in Ilocos Sur — Asia’s best-preserved model of a Spanish colonial town, and a Unesco World Heritage City — puts its best foot forward from the last days of April to the first week of May with the Viva Vigan Binatbatan Festival of the Arts, a series of events that celebrates the religiosity and creative energy of the provincial capital. Started by a group of heritage advocates in 1993, the event coincides with thanksgiving day, held on May 3, in honor of Santo Cristo Milagroso, a 17th-century image of a crucified Jesus Christ that is believed to be miraculous.

Several religious and cultural events are held throughout the festival, including carabao painting, horse-drawn kalesa parade, and Santacruzan — a religious pageant practised nationwide that honors the finding of the Holy Cross by Saint Helena and her son, Constantine the Great.

Finally, Viva Vigan culminates with street dancing through the cobblestone street of Calle Crisologo, where centuries-old houses are decorated with the indigenous hand-loomed fabric called abel iloko. In fact, the festival’s name is an homage to the cloth: binatbatan refers to the initial step of preparing the cotton for the loom. fb.com/vigancityph

 

Carabao-Carroza Festival

Iloilo

Photo by Gregorio B. Dantes Jr. / Pacific Press / Alamy Live News

In the Philippine countryside, the carabao is man’s best friend. Pavia, a town north of Iloilo City, established the Carabao-Carroza Festival to honor their traditional farming practices, especially the use of carabaos to till the soil and transport goods. Founded in 1973, it is the oldest institutionalized festival in Iloilo province, held every May 3 — the eve of the fiesta in honor of Saint Monica, the town’s patron saint.

The festivities kick off with a parade of 18 carts pulled by painted carabaos, each representing a barangay of the municipality. Each carroza is elaborately decorated with the village’s agricultural products. Riding these decorated carts are pageant contestants from each town, who vie for the title of Carabao-Carroza Festival Queen later in the evening. The most exciting event is the carabao race, where the burly bovines gallop with their farmer-owners on their backs across the track at the Pavia National High School. iloilo.gov.ph

 

Pahiyas Festival

Quezon

Photo by Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

Visiting the town of Lucban, Quezon, 125km south of Manila, every May 15 is like walking into a fairy tale. As thanksgiving to San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of farmers, townsfolk decorate houses along the procession route with an ornate array of fruits, vegetables, handwoven handicrafts and even Lucban longganisa, the town’s specialty pork sausages. Most distinctively, homes are festooned with kiping, colorful rice paper shaped into leaves. These are used individually as decorations, or bundled into layered chandeliers called arangya. Kiping can be eaten fried or grilled, dipped in sugar, vinegar or other sauces.

The colorful celebration takes its name from the Filipino word hiyas, which means “gem”, referring to the precious harvest offered to the town’s patron saint. Neighboring towns also hold their own harvest festivals in honor of San Isidro, like the Mayohan of Tayabas and Agawan of Sariaya. During the Mayohan, residents throw rice suman, fruits and candies for the devotees as the religious procession makes its way through the town. Similarly, at the Agawan procession, attendees snatch goodies hung from tall bamboo stalks outside the houses in town. quezon.gov.ph

 

Taong Putik Festival

Nueva Ecija

Photo by Alamy Stock Photo

The feast day of Saint John the Baptist, held every June 24, is celebrated in various ways by the towns that honor him. Festivities in Manila and Batangas on this day may involve the dousing of water, but the villagers of Barangay Bibiclat in Aliaga, Nueva Ecija, partake in a tradition locals call “pag-sa-San Juan”.

As early as 4am, devotees head to the rice fields to smear their bodies with mud and drape wild vines and dried banana leaves over themselves to emulate the humility of the saint. The taong putik — “mud people” in Filipino — then head over to the town church to attend thanksgiving mass at 7am. Along the way, they pass by homes to ask for candles or alms. The mass is followed by the lighting of candles and a solemn procession on foot.

This unique display of devotion is believed to have originated in commemoration of a miracle during World War II, when a sudden downpour prevented the execution of 14 villagers by Japanese soldiers. The townsfolk attributed the incident as the workings of their patron saint, Saint John the Baptist, who is associated with water — the essential element of baptism. aliagamunicipality.weebly.com

 

Baragatan sa Palawan

Palawan

Photo by Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap

As summer winds down to give way to the first rains of the monsoon, Puerto Princesa City in Palawan hosts the last hurrah of the season, celebrating the province’s multifaceted culture and heritage. Named after the Cuyonon word for “meet” or “gather”, this annual celebration brings together the different cultures and stories from across the largest-sized province in the country.

Among the activities during the two-week festival, leading up to the foundation day of the province on June 23, are a float parade, agricultural conventions, cock derbies, street parties and the Mutya ng Palawan beauty pageant.

The festivities reach their peak with the Saraotan sa Dalan, a street dancing competition held on the final day, where contingents from different municipalities parade from the Immaculate Conception Cathedral to the Palawan Provincial Capitol. The performers are dressed in a variety of vibrant costumes, representing the traditional attire of lowland settlers and indigenous people, as well as endemic animals like the Palawan peacock-pheasant.

After, visitors can drop by the trade fair where the different municipalities showcase their local delicacies, handicrafts and tourist attractions. palawan.gov.ph/geninfo.php

 

Pintados-Kasadyaan Festival

Leyte

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When Spanish explorers reached the Visayan islands, they encountered natives covered from head to toe in hand-tapped tattoos. The colonizers called them pintados, or the “painted”. This precolonial practice inspired the Pintados-Kasadyaan Festival of Tacloban City, Leyte, held every June 29, the eve of the feast day of Santo Niño de Leyte, a miraculous 19th-century image of Jesus as a child-king.

Kasadayaan, on the other hand, means “merriment” in the Waray language. The joyous atmosphere of the celebration peaks with the much-anticipated street dancing competition, featuring performers dressed as stylized tattooed warriors who defended Leyte island in ancient times. Bedecked in feathers, sequins and body paint, participants from all over the province and the rest of Eastern Visayas are the highlight of what is considered by many to be the largest cultural event in the region. tacloban.gov.ph

 


Bookmark These Fests

  • Sandugo Festival (Tagbilaran City, Bohol) – July 26
  • Kadayawan Festival (Davao City) – August 10–17
  • Peñafrancia Festival (Naga City, Camarines Sur) – September 17
  • Zamboanga Hermosa Festival (Zamboanga City) – October 9–12
  • Lanzones Festival (Camiguin) – October 18–25
  • MassKara Festival (Bacolod City) – October 23–25
  • Helobung Festival (Lake Sebu, South Cotabato) – November 9–11
  • Giant Lantern Festival (San Fernando City, Pampanga) – December 19

Remember to check for the latest updates regarding these events before you go!

Written by

Edgar Alan Zeta Yap

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