We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!

The Fiesta in the Philippines

Winter 2000
PAGES 6, 7
[original publication]

Everyone here agrees β€” Filipinos love fiestas. The word "fiesta" will bring a smile to the face of almost any Filipino. After all, a fiesta is a special time with friends, a time for fellowship, food, and lots of activities. Each year brings numerous fiestas. Sometimes people are busy for weeks preparing for them. It is surprising, how even those facing many problems in their day-to-day life set them aside and participate in the festivities.

Fiestas and Why They Occur

What actually are fiestas and why do these celebrations occur? The fiesta is of Spanish origin (the reason for the Spanish term). Spain, being a Roman Catholic country, set aside certain days to remember particular saints with processions and celebrations. When Spanish missionaries entered the Philippines during the mid-1500s, they found that the fiesta was a convenient tool to help teach Filipinos the Roman Catholic faith.

From the very beginning Spaniards brought missionaries to the Islands. The Spanish wanted to christianize the people, as well as colonize the country. The missionaries tried to attract the people, who lived in widespread areas, to the towns where there were Roman Catholic churches. Missionaries hoped and expected that people would be drawn to and participate in the colorful processions and religious dramas.

Today, there are fiestas throughout the Philippines to celebrate events in the life of Jesus and Mary, and to honor saints who lived long ago. When the Spaniards came, many communities were given names of saints. Nearly all towns have a patron saint to remember.

The last nine mornings before Christmas throngs crowd the churches for predawn masses, the misa de aguinaldo (mass of the gift). The climax comes at midnight, December 24, when at the misa de gallo (mass of the rooster) Christ's birth is celebrated. Following that, people visit their parental homes for an elaborate dinner. Here grandchildren receive money from grandparents. The next morning, December 25, is quiet. The people sleep.

The celebration of Jesus' suffering and death is a bigger event than Christmas. Filipinos normally go to mass on Ash Wednesday and receive ashes on their forehead from the officiating priest. On Palm Sunday, cleverly woven palms are bought and blessed at church, and then later brought home. Many rituals are observed as Holy Week continues. The passion story is chanted from booths temporarily constructed along the streets. In the cities some people drag heavy crosses along the road. Others walk along the streets whipping themselves to fulfill a vow to God or to do penance. On Thursday, all those who can, return to their home town. Every year on Good Friday, some individuals allow themselves to be publicly and openly crucified for some minutes. The country comes to a standstill.

On Easter morning, the meeting of Jesus and his mother, Mary, is acted out in church services and in public dramas. Yet, in the Filipino setting, the resurrection of Jesus is far less important than his suffering and death. Paradoxically, at the same time that people remember the suffering Christ, they also gather with their families to eat and drink in a festive mood. A further paradox is found in the crucifix, a cross with Christ hanging on it. The typical Protestant cross, in striking contrast is empty. It eloquently declares that Christ is risen.

Town fiestas have many faces. They usually feature a mass and a procession. Long after the religious ritual is completed, people eat, drink, and enjoy the rest of the day. Unfortunately, all too often excessive drinking mars the festivities.

Each year towns located on the sea have their own unique processions. Perhaps the most famous is the feast of Our Lady of Penafranca, in Naga City, approximately 450 kms. southeast of Manila. Here a flower-decked raft with a shrine to Mary is floated down the river. Another famous fiesta is the annual three-day festival in Obando, Bulacan, just north of Manila. The procession for this festival is particularly famous because of its special dances of childless couples, who believe that these dances will fulfill their wishes and prayers for a child. It is also said that the "lovelorn suitors" come here to pray for a wife. Young women also come to pray for a husband.

The fiesta β€” always colorful, always accompanied by music, feasting, and Roman Catholic ritual β€” takes an important place in a town's calendar. But where did the Philippine fiesta really have its origin? Did zealous Roman Catholic missionaries initiate this practice?

Very likely Filipinos adapted p r e -Hispanic rituals to fit Spanish Roman Catholic colonial demands. Filipinos often did this. An ancient Filipino fertility rite, for instance, probably survives in the Obando fiesta though today it passes simply for a Roman Catholic festival. The traditional dance steps seem to pre-date the arrival of Spanish missionaries. The procession of a fiesta in Laguna, southeast of Manila, includes dancers who crouch, shake their shoulders, and imitate handicapped people. It is thought the practice goes back to the distant past when handicapped people looked for healing from priestess healers.

Early in the Spanish period (1565-1898), existing folk rituals seem often to have been combined with what the missionaries were trying to teach. According to Roman Catholic scholars, after some three hundred years of Spanish presence in the Philippines, most of the pre-Spanish features of the festivals have faded. The fiestas have become Filipino Roman Catholic feasts.

Protestants and the Fiesta

One hundred years ago the first Protestant missionaries came to the Philippines. What impact did Protestantism have on the fiesta! How have Protestants responded to it? Some Filipino Protestants insist that the fiesta has become merely a social event. Relatives and townspeople meet and enjoy a holiday together. The original honoring of the saints has been largely forgotten. Some evangelical Christians, however, want nothing to do with the town fiesta. They make other plans for the day and stay far away from the festivities. Still other Protestants try to use the fiestas to keep Christian traditions alive, as did the early Roman Catholic Spaniards. The majority of evangelical Christians do not want to be part of the town fiesta as most Filipinos celebrate it. There are, however, creative ways of giving a biblical significance to the day. Some Christian families prepare food, invite guests to their homes, and use the occasion to visit together and to give thanks to God. One of the participating families often prepares leaflets with meditations and prayers of thanksgiving.

The United Church of Christ, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the Philippines, holds Reformation lectures during the month of October. In this way the church reminds its members of the meaning of the Protestant Reformation. The Christian Reformed Church in the Philippines (CRCP), a sister denomination of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, celebrates Reformation Day annually in several denominational centers. People gather for worship, singing and drama. Reminiscent of the fiesta, eating together is part of the celebration. Some CRCP congregations also observe predawn services during the nine days before Christmas. Again, worship, fellowship and breakfast together strengthen the Christian character of the event.

New Wine in Old Wine Skins?

In time, will the original purpose of the fiesta be forgotten if new meaning is poured into these days of celebration? Should Protestant Christians celebrate something other than what the townspeople celebrate in a fiesta or should they set aside such festivities altogether because they do more harm than good?

One cannot help but note that young people in North America often party enthusiastically in churches on Halloween. Reformed families in America also enjoy decorating a Christmas tree, even though Christmas trees originally were mid-winter symbols of fertility in Europe. In the missionary context another question inevitably arises: What approach should missionaries take when confronted with practices such as the fiesta? Should the cross-cultural missionary make decisions about such matters, or should new Christians themselves decide them for their own people? These questions remain for your contemplation.

blue_ann08yahoo.com's picture

Fiesta a Filipino Tradition

I enjoy the fun that fiesta brings, because it’s full of activities. And it shows the different evolution of how the town originates. Especially during the parade, participants wear the traditional Filipino costumes.

Karisse Ann B. Lizardo
Contibutor: www.OurHappySchool.com

vilma tiu's picture

fiesta in the philippines

for roman catholic it is a must to celebrate fiesta...but for sincere christian fiesta is just useless

TheSnail's picture

Philipino Festivals

Having been very concerned about persecution of Christians round the world, I pray for them. I do not know their churchmanship or their theology. I pray for House Churches in China, for Assyrian Christians in Iraq, for Nigerian Christians, for those in the Sudan, for those in Burma, for Coptic Christians in Egypt, for Christians in Pakistan the list seems endless. All I know is that these dear brothers and sisters are following Jesus and they are willing to suffer, even to martyrdom because they follow our Lord. I wonder whether I who am living in the West, with very little persecution or discrimination would have their commitment to Christ when persecution comes. It seems to me when the chips are down that criticism of other Christians is irrelevant. In the Philipines Christians of all kinds are following Christ after their own own tradition and in their own way. The most important command of Jesus is "I give you a new command that you love one another as I have loved you. By this everybody will know you are my disciples because you love one another[as I have loved you]".

This love is a sacrificial love as was that of Jesus. It is not correct theology or correct religious pratice that matters, it is the mutual love that Christians have for one another.

How will we be able to persuade those who do not love Christ that we have something that they need if we do not love one other?

allan.registos's picture

Filipino Fiestas

I agree with you. However, today in our country, fiesta celebrations can often filled with violence as people especially at midnight to dawn are getting drunk. The purpose of fiesta is to honor the local patron saint. My understanding of it is that, even before the Spaniards came, the Spaniards invented the Fiesta not solely for the Filipinos but to replace the pagan tradition around them of honoring their local gods. Instead of the local gods, they replace it with saints, and that was also introduce in the Philippines during their colonization.

I myself love Fiestas when I was still a Roman Catholic. Now, becoming an Evangelical Christian, I stay away from it especially during nighttime since people who are celebrating are getting drunk and some of them are violent. The fellowship of families is very good(Filipinos are very family oriented), the excitement of the preparation of food, families even from abroad will come home just to celebrate Fiesta(Bohol is a province known to lavishly celebrate fiesta in the month of May), but the excessive drinks and sometimes drugs are the most frequent source of violence. But that doesn't mean that the entire celebration is violent(there are *barangay tanods*(Civilian Volunteer Org.) to maintain peace), but there are at least sparks of violence in any fiesta celebration especially in larger towns. This is the negative side of celebrating fiestas in addition to its nearly *pagan* origin. Also, Discos(street dancing) are often celebrated, even though the local Roman Catholic priest doesn't officially support that activity. Today, Fiesta celebration is almost like a secular celebration, the Religious part of it is not the high-light(as it should be in the first place), but the drinking, eating, dancing etc. Only a very small percentage of the local population will attend the mass officiated by the town's priest(even if the fiesta was celebrated in a small barangay(barrio), the town's priest will officiate the mass). In summary, I stay away from fiestas because:
1. It can be filled with violence
2. The nearly pagan origin of it
3. Religious celebration is only a tiny portion of the feast, but instead filled with excessive drinking and eating in the which the Scripture strongly oppose
4. Point #3 indicated that it has become a secular celebration as well with little to no religious observance during the peak of the celebration
5. Feasts are filled with dancing associated with disco music or worldly music

So I have nothing to do with any town fiesta, but only to pray for those people who truly seek God to come unto Him.

For me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

vilma tiu's picture

fiesta in the philippines

that's is the truth!!!!!