Semana Santa or Holy Week is widely celebrated in the Philippines. Growing up in Iloilo, Semana Santa was given more importance than all the other religious celebrations combined. My recollections of Semana Santa are dominated by praying, singing and eating.
Semana Santa kicked off on Palm Sunday, when hundreds of my townmates attended the 7am mass to have our palaspas (palm leaves) blessed by the priest. We proudly paraded these palaspas from the doors of the church to the gates of our abodes like badge of honor. Then, they were skillfully changed into organic crosses. These crosses adorned the main door, the back door, the door of each room, and some parts of the walls. I grew up looking at these palm crosses like they were stars in the horizon, ready to guide me to right path.
Holy Monday until Holy Wednesday were usually spent planning the menu for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The hunt for malagkit na bigas (sticky rice) to be made into ibos (sticky rice cooked with coconut and wrapped in coconut leaves), suman (sticky rice cooked with brown sugar and wrapped in banana leaves), Paella Valenciana or alupe (finely-ground sticky rice cooked with brown sugar and coconut strips and wrapped in banana leaves) was given the utmost importance. Needless to say, I grew up eating carbohydrates on top of carbohydrates. To this day, I believe that nothing beats the version of Valenciana my relatives made.
On Maundy Thursday, we made a beeline to the plaza. The stage was set to look like the scene in the Last Supper. The parish priest was Jesus Christ; he washed the feet of the apostles who were represented by the most esteemed members of our town. As a child, I did not understand any of it. I watched half of the presentation, yawned, bought a bag of popcorn and went home. I treated it like one of those FPJ (Fernando Poe, Jr) films that were shown in the same place, on large silver screens. When I got bored, I bailed.
The highlight of Semana Santa was Good Friday. I always looked forward to it because of three things. The first one was The Way of the Cross. Thousands of people participated in this procession, which started at the church and made its was to the highest point in our town, a hill, which is a good 2-3 hour walk from the starting point. The procession began with the priest leading everybody. After 30 minutes, half of the attendees walked ahead of the priest and trudged to the top of the hill. At the top, the 14th Station of the Cross stood tall and proud. Beside it were ice cream and ice water vendors who eagerly welcomed thirsty believers (this was before bottled water reached my town).
Once we descended, we visited our relatives in the area. They served us ibos which we dipped in chocolate drink made from tablea. We finished the meal with a slice or two of ripe mangoes. (I am planning to replicate this meal this week. I just have to find ibos).
After this, we spent our afternoon listening to Jesus’ Siete Palabras (Seven Last Words). I told myself that if Jesus said seven words, it would not take more than two minutes. Of course, I was wrong. I did not know that it was actually seven statements, and each statement was explained by a religious leader or expert. In the many years that I tried to listen to the explanation, the young me decided to check out after the third.
The second reason was the contest for kapilya, the best depiction of the Stations of the Cross and the best pasyon singing group our church concocted. The barangays were allowed to use indigenous materials to make life-size images of Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Mama Mary, among others. The kapilya were unveiled around 6pm. The pasyon narrates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but set in a song punctuated by lengthening the last syllable of each line. It accompanied and explained the kapilya. My brother, cousin and I started at Station VIII because it was assigned to our barangay. We said hello to the people we knew and proceeded to Station I. After that, we visited the kapilya in chronological order.
At the end of the visit, we ended up at the church. We joined the hundreds of people who lined up for the hado (kissing of feet of Jesus’ image), and this was the third reason. The good altar boys were careful to always coat Jesus’ feet with perfumed water. That smell is very powerful that decades later, it is still ingrained in my memory in a good way.
Black Saturday was a silent day. There was nothing on the radio or tv. This was before cable TV and Studio 23’s marathon of 7th Heaven episodes. My brother and I spent the day rereading our pile of comics.
On Easter Sunday, we woke up at 2am to get the best view of the stage for the dampog (we had a girl or boy angel, between 5-7 years old, announcing the resurrection of Jesus). The dampog meant elaborate set-ups to act as a backdrop of a momentous event that lasted for ten minutes. Once, the angel “flew” from the top of the church to the stage, some 100 meters away. This was before zip lines became safe and fun. Another time, a giant globe, around 30 feet in diameter, opened up to reveal the angel.
After the dampog, people eagerly awaited for the announcement of winners for kapilya and pasyon singing contest. Whether our barangay won or lost (we won once), we went home to have our fill of carbohydrates that made us comatose for days.