Processions, parades, and flagellations: Year-round Roman Catholic spectacles in Laguna

Laguna is a province of rich culture and heritage. Though urbanization, modernization, and gentrification are slowly creeping into the towns, a number of Roman Catholic festivals and celebrations that date back to the Spanish era still endure.


Laguna is a province of rich culture and heritage. Though urbanization, modernization, and gentrification are slowly creeping into the towns, a number of Roman Catholic festivals and celebrations that date back to the Spanish era still endure. Most of these events are in the fourth-district towns, which are still mostly rural. Witnessing these events is like traveling back in time. Get a taste of the old Laguna through these religious observances.

Lupi in Lumban

January 20 marks Lumban’s town fiesta honoring Sebastian the Martyr, the patron saint of policemen, soldiers, and athletes. Celebrations start on the eve of January 20, when townspeople, after Mass, would carry the statue of Saint Sebastian from the San Sebastian Chapel down to the Pagsanjan River that flows through the town. The figure would be placed on a decorated boat, which would travel to the edge of the town and back. The image would then be brought to the San Sebastian Parish Church.

Lumban locals splash water on a Saint Sebastian statue during the eve of the town fiesta. (File photo by Chris Quintana)

While the procession takes place, the locals would splash water on their own Saint Sebastian statues displayed outside their homes, and sometimes on each other and passersby.

Saint Francis of Assisi was the town’s original patron saint. According to legend, a statue of Saint Sebastian was found by the riverbank. The locals learned that it came from the adjacent town of Pagsanjan, so they returned it. Soon, the figure found its way back to Lumban. The saint was adopted as the town’s patron since.

The last Sunday of January is the culmination of the town fiesta celebration. Called Lupi or Paligong Poon, the celebration includes a fluvial parade along the Pagsanjan River, with locals splashing water on Saint Sebastian statues, visitors, and fellow locals. Lupi is a Filipino word that means “fold” or “to close.” This year’s Lupi was celebrated last January 27.

Maundy Thursday Paete scrimmage

During Maundy Thursday, groups of male Paete locals roam the streets, clad in centurion costumes, which usually consist of a tunic underneath a leather armor, sandals, and sometimes a cape. There’s a Filipino twist to this foreign religious tradition: Instead of wielding a Roman gladius, the costumed men carry arnis sticks made of yantok (rattan).

The groups start roaming the streets in the morning and become more and more visible downtown after lunch. At the plaza, locals and tourists gather and wait for the 3 pm Lenten performance onstage.

Male locals dressed as centurions stage a fight using arnis sticks on Maundy Thursday at the Paete town plaza. (File photo by Chris Quintana)

Once these groups chance upon each other at a street corner near the plaza, a melee ensues. A first-time visitor would think that a real fight had broken out due to the impromptu nature of the scrimmages (there is no choreography). The skirmishes showcase the men’s skills in arnis, a form of martial art.

The fights are a prelude to the main show, “Martir sa Golgota,” a dramatization of the life of Jesus Christ. It starts with the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary and ends with the Last Supper. The betrayal of Jesus Christ up to his crucifixion is performed on Good Friday.

Good Friday flagellation in Kalayaan and Pakil

During Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, most streets are empty, but not in the towns of Kalayaan and Pakil where male locals take to the streets and flagellate themselves. Penitents do flagellation as a form of penance for sins committed or akò (taking the burden), in hopes of healing a sick loved one.

In Kalayaan, the flagellants wear skirts and headdresses made of woven palm leaves that adorned with bougainvillea flowers. Their faces are covered with cloth or an old shirt with holes cut out so they can see. They whip their backs with wooden pegs, usually in an upward direction, moving to a silent rhythm that makes it look like they’re dancing.

Male penitents in Pakil prepare for their annual self-flagellation on Good Friday. (File photo by Chris Quintana)

Flagellants in Pakil use dried banana leaves for their skirts, and some also don a headdress made of palm leaves. Like the ones in Kalayaan, the penitents’ faces are covered with cloth. Most of them are in worn-out shirts with a portion cut out to expose the back. The penitents also whip their backs with wooden pegs, usually sideways.

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The Pakil penitents are members of Hugas Dugo, an all-male group of locals who do self-flagellation every Lent. The group has been in existence since at least the ‘80s.

Locals are used to this annual bloody ritual, but sensitive tourists might find it a bit discomforting. The penitents consider this a solemn act and do it out of faith and devotion, not as a mere spectacle.

Turumba in Pakil

The months of March or April signal the beginning of the longest religious festival in the Philippines. Spanning six to seven months, the Turumba Festival attracts devotees from nearby towns and provinces like Quezon and Batangas.

According to church records, it was in September of 1788 when a group of fishermen saw a framed image of the Our Lady of Sorrows floating in Laguna Lake. The framed image is believed to have belonged to a Franciscan missionary whose vessel was ravaged by a storm. The fishermen were unsuccessful in getting hold of the image but the next day, a group of female locals saw it on top of a rock. They tried to lift the frame but it did not budge.

Devotees raise their hands up toward the statue of the Virgin Mary in Pakil during the Turumba procession. (File photo by Kimmy Baraoidan)

The female locals went to the church to inform the parish priest about the image. The priest called upon the cantor, sacristans, and other churchgoers and proceeded to the rock where the frame was located while singing the litany for the saints. When the congregation arrived, the priest prayed over the frame, and when he tried to lift it, he was able to do so with ease.

The townspeople, especially the women, burst into celebration and chanted “Sa Birhen! Sa Birhen!” as they clacked their wooden clogs, clapped, danced, and sang with joy. They brought the image to the Saint Peter of Alcantara Parish Church. The bishop had the original image of the Our Lady of Sorrows searched in Spain, and it was found in the name of the Virgen de la Antigua (Virgin of Antiquity). Not long afterward, a replica of the Our Lady of Sorrows was made from Spain as per the bishop’s request.

The joy of the locals over the feast was beyond explanation — the locals almost collapsed, as if losing themselves, as described by a Franciscan priest. From this description, the word “turumba” was coined, which might have originated from the Spanish-Portuguese words “tururu,” which means “losing oneself,” and “tarumba,” meaning “delirious.”

Devotees close in on the statue of the Virgin Mary in Pakil during the Turumba procession. (File photo by Chris Quintana)

One of the unique miracles of the Our Lady of Sorrows of Turumba and a belief that the locals observe to this day is the distribution of estampitas or small religious pictures. According to church records, around 300 estampitas survived the fire that burned down the church in 1851.

Another is the public swimming pool, where the statue of the Our Lady of Sorrows of Turumba was brought during the First Lupi. Father Mario Rivera, the parish priest, said the water is believed to have healing properties, and so ailing devotees go there to bathe several times after the procession.

This year, the seven Turumba processions will be on the following dates: April 12, April 23, May 1, May 10, May 19, May 31, and June 9. The Domingo de Dolores, which is the culmination of the Turumba Festival and the anniversary of the discovery of the framed image, will be celebrated on September 15.

Flores de Mayo and Santacruzan

The Spaniards introduced Flores de Mayo and Santacruzan around the mid-1800s. Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May) is celebrated throughout the month of May to honor the Virgin Mary. Girls dressed in white offer flowers to the church altar and sprinkle petals on their way.

The Santacruzan (Holy Cross) is the culmination of the month-long celebration, which commemorates Empress Helena’s search for the cross on which Jesus Christ was nailed. Helena was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine who put an end to Christian persecution.

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Devotees toss petals toward the statue of the Virgin Mary in Alaminos during a homecoming celebration. (File photo by Kimmy Baraoidan)

Also called tapusan, the religious procession takes place usually in the late afternoon or early evening, toward the end of May, with beautiful young women of the community dolled up and dressed in gowns, representing female biblical and historical figures. They walk around town escorted by young men, with an ornate arch held above their heads.

In more urbanized municipalities, the Santacruzan has become grander in terms of adornments and costumes. Some towns even get beautiful “imports” or celebrities to participate in their Santacruzans to attract more spectators. The simpler and more authentic celebrations are in the smaller, more rural towns and villages in the province.

Eleher in Bay

Every June 13, the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua is celebrated in the small village of San Antonio in Bay town through a simple thanksgiving parade, the Eleher.

Originally called Pinagsimbahan, Barangay San Antonio is a fishing community along the coast of Laguna Lake, and it is said to be the original settlement of the town. Residents of Pinagsimbahan recovered a statue of Saint Anthony from the lake and adopted the saint’s name since. The Eleher honors the village’s patron saint. It also serves to appease the lake spirits who are believed to claim the lives of local fisherfolk, according to legend.

Elderly women in floral dresses and male locals of Barangay San Antonio in Bay participate in the Eleher in honor of the village’s patron saint. (File photo by Chris Quintana)

Participants of the Eleher are mostly older women of the community clad in traditional floral dress with matching hats. They dance on the streets to the music played by a marching band. Some men, who cross-dress, also join the thanksgiving parade. They take the place of the women who have grown too old to participate. A statue of Saint Anthony, which is carried by a local, leads the dancing women and men.

Fiesta del Pilar in Alaminos

October 12 is the feast day of the Virgen Del Pilar in Alaminos. A series of celebrations occur nine days leading up to the feast day to honor the Virgin Mary.

The town’s original patron saint was Saint Joachim (San Joaquin), father of the Virgin Mary. “However, a small ivory and wood image of Our Lady of the Pillar was retrieved from one of the town’s wells, and many favors have been received by praying to Our Lady. In gratitude, the town has made her the patroness of the church and the town,” said Jerome Cayton Barradas, social communication coordinator of the Our Lady of the Pillar Parish Church.

The celebrations begin with a novena from October 3 to October 11. During these days that lead up to the 12th, afternoon novenas and Masses are held, followed by an evening procession around town, according to Barradas. “With lit candles in their hands, devotees accompany the patroness while singing the ‘Dalit sa Birhen,’ the traditional hymn to the patroness. This ends with the hymn ‘Pamamaalam,’ a farewell song imploring the Virgin’s blessing before everyone leaves,” he explained.

On the ninth day, a sunduan is held with the image of San Joaquin, accompanied with marching bands, in a procession toward the house of the camarero (custodian) of the festejada image, an antique ivory image of the patroness used during the town fiesta. Recently, the sunduan was made livelier by the Karakol, a prayer dance. “This begins after the sundo and would end with the Putong, a dance of welcome initiated by female devotees from Barangay San Benito,” Barradas said.

The highlight and culmination of the nine-day celebration happen on October 12, with Masses from dawn until around lunchtime, followed by another Mass in the afternoon. A parade of the images of the patroness and the patron saints of the town’s barangays will then take place, complete with marching bands and fireworks. (Laguna Now)