Fiestas in the Philippines are held to celebrate a patron saint (the Philippines is the only majority-Christian country in Southeast Asia) or to mark the passage of the seasons, depending on which part of the country you're in. The sole exception is Christmas, where the whole country breaks out in celebrations that can begin long before December.
The roots of Philippine fiestas go back even further - back to before the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 1500s. In the old animistic culture, regular ritual offerings were made to placate the gods, and these offerings evolved into the fiestas we know today. A wonderful fiesta season means good luck for the rest of the year.
For individual Filipinos, fiestas can be a way of supplicating the heavens or to make amends for past wrongs. In one place, penitents lash themselves with whips; in another, childless women dance on the streets hoping for the blessing of a child.
Every town and city in the Philippines has a fiesta of its own; whatever time of the year it is, there's sure to be a fiesta going on somewhere!
Feast of the Black Nazarene
The Black Nazarene is an antique hand-carved statue of Jesus Christ, which is brought out to the streets of Manila's Quiapo district to lead a huge procession of thousands of barefoot penitents, all massing around the rolling statue yelling "Viva Señor!"
Penitents believe that touching the statue will grant one a miracle in one's life; stories have been heard of diseases healed and personal problems solved after touching the blackened statue.
The carving is black, legend says, because the ship that brought it caught fire along the way; despite its charred state, it is a prized icon for Manila's faithful.
The Ati-Atihan Festival honors the "Santo Niño", or Christ Child, but draws its roots from much older traditions. Festival participants wear blackface and tribal clothing to imitate the aboriginal "Ati" tribespeople who welcomed a group of Malay datus fleeing Borneo in the 13th century.
The festival has evolved to become a Mardi Gras-like explosion of activity - three days of parades and general merrymaking that culminate in a large procession. Novena masses for the Christ Child give way to drumbeats and the streets throbbing with dancing townsfolk.
On the last day, different "tribes" played by townsfolk in blackface and elaborate costumes take to the streets, competing for prize money and year-long glory. The festival ends with a masquerade ball.
Other festivals in the Philippines, like the Sinulog in Cebu and Dinagyang in Iloilo, are directly inspired by the Ati-Atihan.
Like the Ati-atihan, the Sinulog Festival is another Catholic festival honoring the Christ Child (Santo Niño), with deeper pagan roots. The feast draws its origin from an image of the Santo Niño gifted by Ferdinand Magellan to the recently-baptized queen of Cebu. The image was re-discovered by a Spanish soldier amidst the ashes of a burning settlement.
The feast begins with an early morning fluvial procession marking the arrival of the Spaniards and Catholicism. The procession follows after a Mass; "sinulog" refers to the dance performed by the participants in the big procession - two steps forward, one step back, it's said to resemble the movements of the river current.
Participants dance to the beat of drums, shouting "Pit Señor! Viva Sto. Niño!" as they move the procession along.
The province of Marinduque celebrates Lent with a colorful festival commemorating the Roman soldiers who helped crucify Christ. The celebrations begin on Holy Monday, and end on Easter Sunday.
Townsfolk wear masks patterned after Roman soldiers, taking part in a masquerade dramatizing the search for a Roman centurion who converted after Christ's blood healed his blind eye.
The festivities coincide with the reading and dramatization of the Passion of Christ, re-enacted in different towns throughout Marinduque. Penitents can be seen whipping themselves in atonement for this year's sins.
Panagbenga (Baguio Flower Festival)
The mountain city of Baguio celebrates its flower season with - what else? - a flower fiesta! Every February, the city holds a parade with floral floats, tribal festivities, and street parties, with the scent of flowers creating a unique signature for this equally-unique celebration.
The word "panagbenga" is Kankana-ey for "blooming season". Baguio is the Philippines' foremost center for flowers, so it's only appropriate that the city's biggest festival centers around its chief export. Other festivities include a BAguio Flower beauty pageant, concerts at the local SM Mall, and other exhibits sponsored by the local government and foreign sponsors.
Maleldo Lenten Rites
San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando, Pampanga
Maleldo is best described as Extreme Lent: San Pedro Cutud village in Pampanga celebrates what is perhaps the bloodiest Good Friday spectacle in the world, as penitents flagellate themselves with burillo whips and have themselves literally nailed to crosses.
The tradition began in the 1960s, as locals volunteered to have themselves crucified to seek God's forgiveness or blessings. Many more followed, with hundreds making the "panata" (vow) over the years. Today, both men and women undergo the excruciating ritual.
In 2006, Scottish broadcaster Dominik Diamond volunteered to join the penitents, hoping to have his ordeal captured for UK television. Unfortunately, he chickened out just as it was his turn to be nailed up. ("God made me cancel my own crucifixion", Times Online.)
The Pahiyas is Lucban's uniquely Technicolor way of celebrating the feast of San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers. Held to celebrate a bountiful harvest, the Pahiyas brings forth parades and traditional games - it also introduces an explosion of color through the rice wafers known as kiping.
Sheets of kiping are colored and hung from houses, each house trying to outdo the other with the color and elaborateness of their kiping displays.
Apart from the kiping, fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere for the visitors to taste and enjoy. The rice cake known as suman is also everywhere on offer - even total strangers are welcomed into the houses in Lucban to enjoy the house's culinary offerings.
Obando Fertility Rites
The town of Obando plays host to a pagan fertility ritual with a thin veneer of Catholicism laid over it, involving penitents dancing on the streets in the hopes that the saints will grant them their wish.
The penitents push wooden carts before them bearing the image of the saint they wish to supplicate. The saint differs depending on what is being asked for - San Pascual Baylon for those who want a wife, Santa Clara de Assisi for those who want a husband, and our Lady of Salambao for those who want a child. The parade continues down the streets all the way to the town church.
Flores de Mayo
Communities throughout the Philippines celebrate the Flores de Mayo, a month-long flower festival that honors the Virgin Mary and retells the folk tale of the rediscovery of the True Cross by Emperor Constantine's mother Helena.
The highlight of any Flores de Mayo celebration is the Santacruzan, a religiously-themed beauty pageant featuring the community's most beautiful (or well-born) ladies marching in a procession through town.
Participants are dressed in the finest traditional clothing, but no one is better dressed than the lady who represents Queen Helena, who walks under a canopy of flowers. She precedes a float bearing an icon of the Virgin Mary. After proceeding to Church, the whole town celebrates with a huge feast.
For several years, some towns held gay Santacruzan parades, until a cardinal put the kibosh on that trend. ("Cardinal Bans Gays in Santacruzan", CBCPnews.)
Kadayawan sa Dabaw
The southern city of Davao's holds its biggest festival in August, a whole week of parades, races, and pageants held to celebrate the incoming harvest. Kadawayan is an interesting showcase of the tribes and traditions that form part of the history behind this rather new city.
Fresh fruits and flowers (two of Davao's key exports) are all readily available, and crowds gather to watch the indak-indak sa kadalanan (a Mardi Gras-like parade of colorful costumes, albeit garbed in tribal wear). The nearby Davao Gulf also plays host to boat races, both traditional and modern. A horse-fight is also conducted during Kadayawan, a brutal spectacle that draws from local tribal tradition.
A nine-day fiesta honors Our Lady of Peñafrancia in Naga City, Bicol. The celebrations revolve around a statue of the Lady, which is carried by male devotees from its shrine to the Naga Cathedral. The nine days that follow are Naga's biggest party - parades, sports events, exhibitions, and beauty pageants vie for visitors' attentions.
On the last day, the statue is brought back to the shrine via the Naga River, on a fluvial procession illuminated by candlelight.
Masskara is a recent (1980) innovation on Bacolod City's Charter Day celebrations, but it's great fun nonetheless. Masked partygoers in fantastic costumes dance on the streets of Bacolod City, providing the main spectacle for an event that also includes pole-climbing competitions, gorge-till-you-drop feasts, and beauty pageants galore.
Higantes - Feast of San Clemente
The Higantes (Giants) tradition was born of a massive inside joke. When the town of Angono was one big farming property owned by an absentee Spanish landlord, the powers that be decided that times were tough, and prohibited the celebration of any fiestas apart from the San Clemente festival in November.
The townsfolk decided to lampoon their masters using larger-than-life effigies paraded during the permitted feast day - the masters were none the wiser, and a tradition was born.
While the ten-foot-high papier-mache giants are being paraded, townsfolk drench each other with water guns and buckets. Devotees also carry the image of San Clemente (patron saint of fishermen) on a fluvial parade down Laguna de Bay.
Angono is also famous for its arts and crafts trade: the town has produced some of the country's most prominent artists, and is still bustling with artisans and art galleries. Take some time to look through their wares while you're in town.
Giant Lantern Festival
San Fernando, Pampanga
During Christmas, star-shaped lanterns known as parol sprout all over the country. The biggest and best parol are made in San Fernando, which advertises its wares in their biggest Christmas exhibit. The residents eschew the simple parol of old, bringing out multicolored electric beauties with blinking panels. After viewing the many parol on display, you can buy one of your own to take home!