Back to article list

May 11, 2009


A fiesta (Spanish word for party or festivity, turned pista in the dialect), after all, represents not only the largely Catholic population of the country but is an acknowledged national traditional occasion. It is a moment when communities come together in gratitude for another passing year. Mention the word fiesta to a Filipino and it would likely elicit a smile from him, the word, at once, conjuring images of banderitas (flaglets), carrozas(processional carts), marching bands, and a surfeit of food.  

Fiestas so pervade the lives of Filipinos that it has become a favorite subject of local painters like Manuel Baldemor and National Artist for Visual Arts Carlos “Botong” Francisco. As early as 1898, a less than a minute reel of the now popular Quiapo’s Feast of the Black Nazarene was shot and shown to Manila audiences by the Spanish officer Antonio Ramos. Also, one of the earliest Philippine documentaries made was La Fiesta de Obandodone in 1909. Later, in 1971, a film titled Fiesta Extravaganza starred the then teenage stars Vilma Santos and Edgar Mortiz. This fascination with fiestas further found its way in the works of our local writers: Angel de Jesus wrote the short story Fiesta in 1936; National Artist for Literature Alejandro Roces came up with a book titledFiesta in 1980, discussing at length folk festivals like Ermita’s bota flores, Pakil’s Turumba, Marinduque’s Moriones, Aklan’s Ati-atihan, and Naga’s Peñafrancia; Bobby Flores Villasis wrote Fiesta, a one-act play in English in 1987.  

The fiesta’s popularity among the Filipinos traces its roots to the fact that even before Catholicism arrived in the country, the locals were already into celebratory feasts as recorded by Antonio Pigafetta, Miguel de Loarca and Pedro Chirino. The Maranao epic “Darangen,” for one, tells of “a grand festival held in Bembaran” marked by the beats of agongs, voices of people and cannons booming in the distance. Spanish chronicler Fr. Joaquin de Coria also reported in 1872 of the locals’ merriment after a great victory over their enemies that was celebrated for days with every kind of songs. 

Heeding this key fact about the locals, the early missionaries in the country like the Jesuits and the Fransciscans, used the candle-lit processions, dances, and music to draw the local people out from the rice fields (the country, being largely agricultural) into the center of the village. Reinhard Wendt culled from the Jesuit reports at the beginning of the 17th century an observation substantiating that the Jesuits definitely “went to every effort to turn the fiestas into crowd-pullers, attracting not only the local population, but also the people from neighboring and far-flung districts.” 

The early Filipinos, with their love for pageantry and rituals, naturally gravitated towards the processions, the large floats of the statue of the Christ and other saints, and the smell of the incense. This is why Holy Week, with all such elements, became one of the more important fiestas to the Filipinos (along with the feast of Corpus Christi, and the feast of the patron saint of the town). In Bantayan Island in Cebu, for example, a major Lenten spectacle held on Holy Thursday and Good Friday involves a procession of the life-sized statues of various saints along with twenty other floats depicting Christ’s passion.  

Being originally organized by the Spanish missionaries who were themselves homesick, the fiestas became naturally flavored with remembered practices from back home: the processions, novenas, the visperas ritual, the aurora serenade at the break of dawn (now still being practiced in Bicol in May), even the latter-day papier mache giants of Lucban, Quezon.  

A survey of age-old fiestas that are celebrated in the country falls in May, and most scholars relate it to the cycle of season that is traced to as far back as the goddess worshipping cultures, and on to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. And it is this Christianization of these once pagan cultures that may help explain the popularity of the worship of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic world, and also why Philippine fiestas in May these days have her as its central figure. In any town in the country during May, there is a fiesta in her honor  (Flores de Mayo) with the fiesta at Antipolo for the Nuestra Señora dela Paz y Buenviaje being the most famous one. It is no wonder, too, that the country’s only “fertility” fiesta, Kasilonawan of Obando Church in Bulacan falls in May. It is during this feast that all childless couples dance the famous “Sayaw sa Obando”  before the image of Santa Clara with the hope of being granted a child, though the feast is also celebrated in honor of San Pascual de Baylon and La Virgen del Salambao.  Coming in second to the Virgin Mary is San Isidro Labrador. San Isidro is a 12th century devout day laborer, who was said to have angels ploughing his fields, miraculously causing water to spring from the earth. He is considered to be the patron saint of agricultural workers, death of children, farmers, field hands, laborers, livestock, husbandmen, ranchers, rural communities, and well-loved patron saint of the city of Madrid (as well as other Spanish cities like, Saragossa, Seville and Leon).  With early missionaries coming from those areas, San Isidro Labrador was readily adapted as the patron saint of many agricultural towns in the Philippines like Bilar, Trinidad and Tubigon in Bohol, and the cluster towns of Quezon province, including Lucban, Tayabas, Sariaya and Gumaca.

Outside of these May festivities, there is the popular Sinulog in Cebu falling on the third Sunday of January and is the region’s premier religious ritual in honor of the Santo Niño (Holy Child). Cebu has the country’s oldest Christian image believed to have been presented by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan to Queen Juana, wife of Rajah Humabon when he landed in Cebu in 1521. In January too is the feast of The Black Nazarene, a life-sized statue of Christ that is carried through Quiapo by barefooted men yelling, “Viva Señor!” The statue was brought to Manila in 1606 by a Mexican priest and for more than 200 years since, the church has been placing the statue on a gilded carriage every January and pulling it through the streets of Quiapo. There are also the popular fluvial processions during the feast of the Lady of Peñafrancia in Bicol in September and the feast of Sta. Cruz (Holy Cross) in Bulacan in July also attract a large number of crowds, with the images mounted on a boat that sails down the river.

Generally, it is the extravagance and lavishness in the celebration of these fiestas that is almost always noted. A town celebrating its patron saint’s feast day almost always have the bamboo arcos (archs) that are embellished with palm fronds, paper ornaments, pakaskas (whittled poles), and intertwined branches.  Never before seen artful products also surface especially for the occasion. In the towns of Lucban and Sariaya, Quezon, and Pakil, Laguna, for example, there is the so-called “pahiyas-tambag” whittled from the kayetana and matang-araw woods of the Sierra Madre and is specially used for the occasion. There is also the intricately designed pastillas wrappers done by the women of San Miguel de Mayumo, Bulacan. Annotating the chronicles of Antonio de Morga, Jose Rizal himself could not help but add a report by a certain Franciscan missionary Rev. Felix de la Huerta who described a rattan lamp along with the carozzas and the wheels all covered with jewels of “extreme value,”  which belonged to the people of Majayjay, Liliw and Nagcarlan.

This extravagance is all the more evident in the food: the famous kiping or thin, multi-colored translucent rice wafers shaped like leaves that adorn the façade of every Lucban house; and the pan de san Nicolas bearing the image of the saint; and the fresh carabao’s milk pastillas (which used to be served only during fiestas); and certain cakes, rellenos and every imaginable rice products.  Journalist Felix Roxas, who wrote for the Spanish newspaper El Debate between 1926 and 1936, took note of the food prepared in Sulipan, Pampanga during afiesta visit: “tiny maya (rice bird) deliciously seasoned, to the rarest shellfish, the most savoury fruits, inimitably perfect ices, and sirops were enjoyed by even the most demanding of guests.” The best thing is, during a fiesta,every home is open not only to kin and friends but to strangers alike. President Emilio Aguinaldo himself had a taste of it when he attended one such lavish fiesta in San Fernando Pampanga with the new American “masters.”

It comes as no surprise then why most Filipinos are also neck-deep in financial debts after such fiestas. It is because of this generally observed extravagance that, at one time, even prodded then Senator Raul Manglapus to outlaw fiestas as a social evil. The legislation, expectedly, did not prosper.

In his book, “Culture and Community in the Philippine Fiesta and Other Celebrations,” Florentino H. Hornedo cited that the fiesta endures in the country precisely because it is “rooted in the communitarian and expressive instincts of human nature,” is a “durable venue for Filipino culture and expressions,” and is a “symbol of Filipino sense of community” as they struggle against modernization, involving individuals in their community.    

More importantly, Hornedo sees the Philippine fiesta as a “cultural anchor,” helping the Filipinos define their national character. “It is to this small community, that is annually recreated by the fiesta, that he goes home to renew his identity and sense of belonging—belonging to a home and familial village.”

However one may view the local fiestas, it would help to remember that the overall picture of gaiety in anyfiesta is all the more vivid and true because of the people in it, and, more importantly, because one is in it whether as a hermano (fiesta leader), a cook, or, this time, as a not-so-clueless hungry guest.