Written by Pia Lopez | Pictures by Mercedes Espina, Vitzcel & friends, Balay.PH, & Judgefloro
Semana Santa of twenty-five years ago seems like an ancient memory compared to today’s happenings. The old days remind us of quiet countrysides and coming home to ancestral provinces with whole villages in silent meditation, families marching alongside religious processions, old women gathered in chapels reciting hundreds of prayers… these have all slipped away with modern times. Semana Santa was the most solemn time of the year, with a whole nation in a religious mandate for silence, prayer, and penance. The evolution from austerity to its polar opposite, indulgence, took no notice from society.
Semana Santa is Here
Semana Santa is one of the busiest holiday seasons in the Philippines. Aside from the Christmas break, it has the longest leave granted catholically to all: Christians, Muslims, workers, students, the rich and the unemployed.
Adopted from the Spanish Catholic tradition, Semana Santa is the last week of the forty-four day Lenten calendar which starts on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Easter Sunday. The purpose of Lent for Christians is to contemplate the teachings of Christ, and Semana Santa concentrates on the sufferings of Christ during his imprisonment, crucifixion, and resurrection based on texts from the New Testament.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday or Linggo ng Palaspas. Families attend mass for blessings of sacramentals. Religious processions occur all week and ceremonial depictions vary within the provinces.
Typically during Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday, “the fallen Christ” is depicted walking the streets. Holy Wednesday (Miyérkules Santo) is the last working day of the week. Many Filipinos leave directly after work for vacation, making it one of the country's busiest travel days.
Maundy Thursday is the first official national holiday. The processions of the “Passion of Christ” or the Senakulo, a play depicting Christ’s last days, starts on Thursday to Good Friday (Biyernes Santo). Some men exercise self-flagellation and actual nailing to the cross to prove their piety. The last mass which is on Friday concentrates on “The Last Supper.” Good Friday is the most serious day for Christians. In the “9th hour,” the death of Christ, Filipinos self-quarantine in their homes. This is an auspicious day for Christians, when it is believed that God is dead and evil is around. The “sacrifice of Christ” is celebrated by followers through fasting, abstaining from eating meat, and other ‘little sacrifices.’ Even children give up their favourite foods and refrain from play. Everyone stays at home. It was one of the quietest days of the year.
On Black Saturday people spend their time praying. Women are seen in small shops and the neighbourhood chapel reciting the passion of Christ. Easter Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Christ and concludes the Holy Week.
In the Present
Nowadays, Holy Week starts for some on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, as some are granted 9 days of official leave. But officially, the holiday starts on Wednesday, the busiest travel day of the year where bakasyonistas (vacationers) pilgrimage via plane, car, ferry and bus to their holiday destination alongside hordes of other travellers. For many, this vacation is now spent on beautiful beaches where families spend time together, some party, and simply enjoy time off work.
At a Time of Festivity
In 2018, the Philippine National Police reported 39 drownings during Semana Santa. Incidents were reported to be caused mostly by alcohol intoxication, or by parents, who left their children unattended while at the beach. It is a duality from the past.
Semana Santa in Siargao
It was April of 1998, there were still more palm trees than structures, and only sand and dirt paved the way to Cloud Nine, the population of General Luna was no more than 12,000 people at that time.
Before Semana Santa, the village prepared for the observances. The “udlot” or the new leaf of young palm trees were cut, collected, and dried for days. Women wove the dried leaves into palaspas flowers for Palm Sunday, where families attended church for the blessing. This hallowed flower and other anting-anting (amulets) are placed by the home’s altar to ward off evil spirits. Semana Santa rituals are a mix of pre-colonial and Christian rites.
During Bieyrnes Santo, 14 stations of the cross were constructed across General Luna, each station comprising different pictures narrating the Senakulo. People also practiced puasa or fasting.
“Before, the whole family goes to prosesyon,” reminisces Carding. “Now, it's only the old ones that go.
“Before, working is permitted, sweeping is permitted, showering is permitted, we are not allowed to eat meat. If you get wounded, it is said it won't heal til’ next year. Rice farming is permitted, disorder is permitted, and especially, the earth cannot be disturbed.”
Now, the locals just have to teach surfing during that time,” Carding observes.
The Cloud 9 area reaches full capacity during Holy Week.
The sight of tourists marching the wooden Boardwalk is like a pilgrimage to the Tower that may not hold. Semana Santa is the busiest week of the year for surf instructors in Siargao. Recalling last year, the sight of SISA members convening days before Semana Santa to prepare for the surge of people in the water. The Philippine Coast Guard crew set-up their tent station, spending the whole week with the surfer group patrolling the ocean. Most accidents in the water are caused by a culmination of over-capacity in the line-up, inexperienced swimmers, or Tanduay-induced drowning. In the streets, the week-long parties commence as early as Saturday. Relatives and tourists flock to the island like a scene from a blockbuster hit.
The solemnity of the past is the antitheses of today’s Semana Santa commotion in General Luna. This stark contrast is worthy of quiet contemplation.
With the onset of the COVID- 19 virus and the state of nationwide quarantine, the quiet days of the past are momentarily experienced during this very still and unusual Semana Santa.