Philippines, the Fiesta Islands
By Ivan Henares
The Philippines is, without a doubt, a country of beautiful sights, festivities and merrymaking. Throughout the year, around the 1,701 islands, festivals abound in an exciting explosion of local color, food, traditions and the boundless energy of locals and visitors who participate in these celebrations with much gusto.
Although May has always been the undisputed month of fiestas, for party enthusiasts, there’s always a festival to visit virtually every month around the islands, and some of these unique celebrations have withstood the test of time and carved their own niche in Philippine culture. Here’s our pick of fiestas around the Philippines the whole year round.
In January, the Ati-atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan is held in honor of the Sto. Niño every third week of January. The festival got its name from the fact that Aklanons and tourists alike imitate the Ati, the local aborigines or Negritos, by wiping soot on their faces. They don colorful ethnic costumes and dance around the streets of Kalibo to the beat of ethnic troubadours. Similar celebrations are held in honor of the Sto. Niño around the Visayas, most notable of which are the Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo City and the Sinulog Festival in Cebu.
On January 9, the Feast of the Black Nazarene is held in Quiapo, Manila. This intense mammoth procession winds through the streets of Quiapo like a strong wave of faith, with devotees risking life and limb just to get close to the miraculous image and touch it.
All eyes are on Baguio City in February for the Panagbenga or Baguio Flower Festival which is held during the last week. The highlight of this festival is the floral float parade. Dozens of themed floats decorated with thousands fresh flowers make their way around downtown Baguio City in one colorful display of creativity.
The month of March signals the start of the Turumba in Pakil, Laguna where seven dancing processions called fiestang lupi are held to commemorate the seven sorrows of Our Lady of Turumba. This starts before the Holy Week and ends in the month of June.
Depending on what month Good Friday falls in, the Moriones Festival in Marinduque is also held in the month of March or in April. The province becomes the big stage for the story of Longinus, the Roman centurion who was converted due to the death of Christ. Residents of Boac, Mogpog and Gasan are colorfully garbed and masked as soldiers and centurions. The unique aspect of this festival is the wooden mask called morion. The festival culminates in the reenactment of the beheading of Longinus.
There is so much to see in the month of May. Check out the Carabao Festival in Pulilan, Bulacan on May 14 to 15. This is the time when hundreds of water buffaloes (carabao) are paraded around the street of Pulilan, followed by colorful floats and farming machines.
May 15 is also a busy day in the province of Quezon. Don’t miss out the colorful Pahiyas Festival in Lucban, an annual celebration in honor of San Isidro Labrador. The town explodes in immense color as residents decorate their homes with fruits, vegetables and other produce as well as kiping, which are colored rice wafers shaped like leaves. It’s best to come before 7 a.m. to catch the procession as it winds around the streets of Lucban.
In neighboring Tayabas, an all-male procession is held at 3 p.m. And there is a reason for that since during the procession, literally thousands of suman or native rice cakes are thrown down from the houses causing a merry mad rush to grab them among procession participants. This is called the hagisan ng suman. This also happens in Sariaya as fruits, vegetables and other décor in front of every house are free for all once the signal to begin the agawan or grabbing is given. These are also held in honor of San Isdro Labrador, patron saint of farmers, in thanksgiving for the good harvest.
From May 17 to 19, the streets in Obando, Bulacan become alive with the Obando Fertility Rites. Childless couples, in the hope that they would bear children, do a ‘fertility dance’ on the streets of Obando. This fiesta is held in honor of Sta. Clara, San Pascual Baylon and the Nuestra Señora de Salambao, the three patron saints of Obando.
June is the month of many water festivals, especially in towns celebrating the feast of San Juan Bautista. Don’t expect to stay dry if you happen to pass by the town of San Juan in Metro Manila on June 24. In the village of Bibiclat in Aliaga, Nueva Ecija, the Taong Putik Festival is held on the same day. While in Balayan, Batangas, a grand parade of succulent roasted pigs makes its way around town in what is called the Parada ng Lechon.
The Apung Iru Fluvial Procession is held from June 28 to 30 in the town of Apalit, Pampanga in honor of San Pedro. A large centuries-old ivory image of St. Peter is transported along the river on a colorful pagoda accompanied by dozens of boats and thousands of devotees and merrymakers splashing water along the banks of the Pampanga River.
A grand fluvial procession is also held in Naga City, Camarines Sur in September. The Peñafrancia Festival is a religious celebration honoring the feast day of Our Lady of Penafrancia the patroness of the Bicol Region.
Bacolod City comes alive in October as they hold their biggest annual event, the Masskara Festival which coincides with the celebrations of the city’s Charter Day. Carnivals, fairs and a mardi-gras style parade of costumed and masked street dancers are highlights of this celebration.
Don’t miss the La Naval de Manila held in Quezon City every October. This centuries-old religious celebration held in honor of the Nuestra Señora del Santissimo Rosario to commemorate the naval victory of the Spanish against the Dutch in 1646. The celebration is capped by a grand procession.
In Angono, Rizal every November, colorful larger-than-life papier mache caricatures are the highlight of the Higantes Festival held in honor of San Clemente. On November 23, the image of San Clemente is accompanied by rowdy revelers and parehadoras, groups of young girls from every barangay, in colorful costumes, wearing wooden slippers (bakya), and each holding a wooden boat paddle (sagwan), marching together and stomping the ground in a uniform beat as they walk around town followed by a marching band, to the banks of the Laguna de Bay for a fluvial procession. And prepare to get doused since Angono gets wet and wild as the procession makes its way around town.
In December, there’s no other place to be than in the Christmas Capital of the Philippines, the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, as it becomes the stage for the spectacular Giant Lantern Festival. Various villages in the city build 18-foot Christmas lanterns with at least 5,000 light bulbs each. The dynamic interplay of lights and color that precisely moves with the rhythm of a brass band, the magnitude of size and their intricate designs, and so much more is what spectators get to appreciate as the giant lanterns of San Fernando are pitted against each other on festival night. It’s usually held on a Saturday a few days before Christmas Eve.
Indeed, the Philippines is a treasure trove of fiestas and celebrations. And the possibilities are endless in these fiesta islands. So there’s no reason why you shouldn’t come back for more!