Exploring the Folk Festivals in Pampanga, the Philippines

Exploring the Folk Festivals in Pampanga, the Philippines
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Origins of the Pampanga Celebrations

During the pre-Spanish era, a large number of early African pygmies (Aetas) led by a negrito ruler named Dulum, inhabited the nearby Mount Arayat and the Zambales ranges. Accordingly, the Taiwanese traders, the datus and other members of higher social order of the Malayo-Polyensian people came to settle near the river banks. Since the Central Luzon area was sparsely inhabited by the taga-ilog or the Tagalogs, it is surmised that only a few of this group’s social class had the resources to pay Dulum, for the purchase of lands near the riverbanks.

The Central Luzon settlement area was called Pampangan, which meant by the riverbanks or “pampang”. Similar to the taga-ilog and their Tagalog moniker, the Pampangans’ dialect and natives were later called Kapampangan.

Due to the fact that Central Luzon was the most suitable place for all types of livelihood, Pampanga also became the natural choice for the Spanish colonists. Datu Malang, a descendant from one of the original upper class settlers, was among the firsts of the local leaders to allow the conversion of the Kapampangans into Christianity.


Under the Spanish Rule

As the turn of events unfolded, the Spanish colonizers did not find it difficult to occupy the Central Luzon area. Still, historical records have it that a Spanish conquistador named Martin de Goiti, had to quash a revolt by a group of Kapampangans in 1571. De Goiti’s victory allowed the Spanish government to establish rule over Pampanga, which included the towns of Nueva Ecija, Bataan, Bulacan, Pangasinan and Zambales as part of the region. This explains why to this date, some of the natives from other provinces also speak the Kapampangan dialect.

The richness of the soil attracted a lot of Spanish aristocrats and other New World settlers to the islands, particularly in Pampanga where the natives were less hostile and more agreeable. By 1600, the Spanish colonies in Pampanga had prospered and already had 15 convents plus one royal college under the administration of Jesuit priests.

Since it was customary for the Spanish to celebrate each year’s bountiful harvest to honor their patron saints, the province of Pampanga became noted for its many festivities. However, after the country’s liberation from Spanish rule, the traditional fiestas continued but later waned through the passing of years. The once prosperous Pampanga underwent certain geographical transformations and developments, which gave its people fewer reasons to celebrate.

461px-Pinatubo 2

The Advent of Environmental Problems in Central Luzon

At the height of illegal logging and rampant quarrying during the 1970s, environmental problems came to beset the province as vast tracts of agricultural land were often submerged in flood waters. In 1991, the Mount Pinatubo eruption brought about the most devastating of environmental and economic disasters.

The continuous flow of lahar, months after the volcano’s eruption created a major change in the landscape of Central Luzon. Homes and means of livelihoods were left buried in deep mud, while corrupt government officials misused the funds allocated for the province’s rehabilitation. Based on statistical reports, more than 113,640 families comprising an estimated 529,578 Kapampangans were displaced. Agriculture became a less viable source of income, since the silted waterways worsened the severe flooding that perennially affected the remaining arable lands.

800px-Lahar Mount Pinatubo

Owing to the economic hardships, not all the folk festivals in Pampanga are still widely observed. The remaining traditional celebrations are related to the observance of Catholic religious practices. Fewer folks engaged in merry-making activities for reasons of bountiful harvests and prosperity. In fact, many find it ironic that the most festive and largest crowd drawers are the Holy Week reenactments of Jesus Christ’s passion and sufferings.

The wealthy “hermano or hermana mayores” who used to sponsor the traditional festivities for bountiful harvests have since migrated to the U.S. or have relocated to Metro Manila. Nevertheless, traditional festivals held in the province of Pampanga during the holidays are still spectacular and exceptional, as well as worth the trip, in case one gets the chance to experience them.

Overview of Famous Festivities

800px-Crucifixion in San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines, easter 2006, p-ad20060414-12h54m52s-r

Maleldo (Mal A Aldo) – Real Crucifixions and Self-Flagellations

Maleldo refers to the traditional Holy Week rituals being observed in the different towns of Pampanga province. Although it is common for the whole nation to observe the Lenten season by reenacting the events leading to Christ’s crucifixion, many prefer to trek to San Fernando and Angeles City, in Pampanga.

This is because the passion plays culminate to real-life crucifixions of the cross-bearers, in addition to seeing the bloodied backs of the self-flagellants. All these are performed under the heat of a Good Friday noonday sun. In Angeles City, a district called Lourdes North West is filled with people quite eager to witness around ten penitents being nailed to the cross and hoisted upright atop a simulation of Mount Golgotha. A similar reenactment can also be seen in Barangay San Pedro Cutud, San Fernando City.

Lest there be a misconception, the Catholic Archdiocese of Pampanga does not encourage the actual nailing on the cross or the self-infliction of real wounds on the flagellants’ bare backs. The church has in fact, reminded everyone that the only way to salvation is to confess one’s sin and repent with genuine sincerity. But the crowds of spectators estimated at about a hundred thousand, trekking annually to this province have all but encouraged the holding of this type of Holy Week presentation. Economically, they equate to brisk-selling businesses, including the mass manufacture of wooden crosses.

“Blasting of Judas Escariot”

For the faint-hearted or those who cannot stand the sight of real blood, and the sounds of penitents moaning in pain while going through the motions of being actually nailed to the cross, a better choice of destination would be Sto. Tomas, Pampanga. The Holy Week presentation is more focused on a ritual called “The Blasting of Judas Escariot". Paper-mache effigies of four ravens with built-in fireworks are ignited and propelled toward a common target, the effigy of Judas. The townsfolk believe that the loud exploding noise will pave the way for a more fruitful year, sans the evilness of people like Judas in their midst.

800px-Hot air balloon fiesta

The Hot Air Balloon Festival

On a more cheerful and less traditional note, a festive air show of hot air balloons is being held at Clark Air Base, in the outskirts of Angeles City. The festival was introduced only in 1994, and has been drawing international participants ever since. They come from all across the globe to fly their hot air balloons in any form, shape, size and colors. Colorful exhibitions are held annually every month of February and include other shows like skydiving performances, presentations of motorized hang-gliding, flying of remote-controlled model aircrafts, displays of giant colorful kites and a host of other aero-sports activities.

Those who desire to be more than a spectator to the hot air balloon exhibits can register to become a passenger in one of the balloons. However, the ride is for a certain fee, on a first come, first served basis and comes with a waiver of one’s right to claim indemnification in cases of accidents. Each basket can accommodate only two to three persons including the pilot. The flights are scheduled either at sunrise or at sunset, and the backdrop of a dimly-lit sky and background music creates a dramatic effect, as more than two dozen hot air balloons takeoff from the grounds.

The actual flight usually lasts for about 30 to 45 minutes or even an hour, as navigation of the balloon contraption relies on the wind conditions. Passengers are quite exhilarated with their balloon-riding experience as the townspeople from below gleefully cheer them on, yet could also be poignant for some to see a close aerial view of how the devastating lahar mud flow snakes through Pampanga’s once rich and generous soil.

407px-Santa Reina Elena

The Sabat SantaCruzan

The santacruzan tradition in Pampanga draws the interests of people who want to experience the real meaning of this annual procession. Through the years and in other Philippine provinces, the rite was reduced to a simple parade of beautiful women donning their best gowns and attires. The prestige in being invited to join the parade depends on the queenly title of the traditional characters, which they are supposed to portray.

In Pampanga, the Sabat Santacruzan remains to be the religious procession that depicts the story of Reyna Elena’s (St. Helene’s) quest for the one true cross on which Christ had died. What makes the presentation interesting and engaging is the element of “moro-moro” or role playing and use of theatrical props, as the procession progresses. Biblical characters will actually intercept Reyna Elena, during the procession and the drama is then presented right on the streets.

The theatric acts portray how three crosses being presented to the queen are determined as the genuine Holy Cross. The procession ends as its authenticity is determined by its capability to heal a sick and dying person. The latter embraces the real Holy Cross, and fully recovers from his affliction.

Kuraldal sa Sasmuan

Kuraldal sa Sasmuan

Kuraldal refers to a dance-worship, while Sasmuan is one of the oldest towns of Pampanga. The celebration of the rites is held every January of each year, five days after the town’s traditional fiesta or feast for a bountiful harvest.

On the said day, an 8 p.m. mass officiated by the Archbishop and other priests at the Sta. Lucia Chapel serves as the prologue to an all night non-stop ritual of fertility dancing, in front of the said church. However, the crowd is too thick for real dancing; hence, the devotees merely sway or jump as they wait for their turn to pick a flower or rub their handkerchiefs against the wooden statue of Sta. Lucia. The practice is said to put the devotees in a trance and those who will be blessed will have their fervent prayers answered. Wishes prayed for could be anything, from pregnancy, to wealth or success in a competition.

The fervent practice of this tradition is the Kampampangan’s belief that things will eventually turn out well for them as long as they do not lose their zest for life.

lubenas by Lourdes Caro

The Lubenas

The lubenas or novenas, is one of the oldest traditions still in practice since it is largely connected to the Christmas “simbang gabi” or dawn masses held before Christmas Day. Starting on every December 16 to December 24, or for a total of nine days, nine consecutive processions are held on the eve of every dawn mass. This means staying up late and then waking up early for the dawn mass as a form of penance in preparation for the commemoration of Christ’s birth.

What makes this ritual festive is the use of brightly lit and ornate lanterns to light their way during the nightly procession, instead of using hand-held candles. The tradition is well-loved, since the Christmas holidays are also homecoming occasions for most Kapampangans who were away from home during the year. Having an all night activity, gives them more time to spend with their loved ones during their brief homecoming vacations. To make the holding of the procession more dramatic, a gigantic lantern at the tail end of the procession lights up the saint’s “carroza” or carriage, trailed by a group of singers solemnly intoning the Dios Te Salve (Hail Mary).


Ligligan Parul

“Ligligan Parul” is the Giant Lantern Festival, which is a spin-off of the nightly “lubenas” procession that makes use of lanterns to light their way. A competition of giant lanterns is held annually in San Fernando, Pampanga every Christmas Eve. The very first contest was held in honor of and was sponsored by President Manuel L. Quezon, the Philippine president of the Commonwealth Republic established by the American government.

Through the years, the excitement for the much awaited lantern competition is highlighted by the latest innovation that would make a giant lantern stand out as a cut above the rest.


Lantern-making started out with the use of the traditional Japanese paper and the small light bulbs in order to illuminate the “parol” (lantern). Lantern-making evolved through the years as different materials were used from colorful plastics to the use of rotors for manipulating the bulbs to work like Christmas lights that run, blink or create color patterns. As more innovations were introduced, the larger the lanterns became —until it was common for all competing entries to come in gigantic sizes.

This gave the capital city of San Fernando a new industry as Pampanga-made “parols” became world renowned and famous for the uniqueness and ingenuity of their designs. Hence, the excitement over the lantern-making activities brings an air of pre-Christmas festivity, as people from all walks of life arrive in San Fernando to buy or place their orders.


Minalin’s Aguman Sanduk

Minalin’s Aguman Sanduk serves as an apt conclusion for all the different folk festivals still being observed in Pampanga. It’s an exclusive tradition in the town of Minalin, which started in 1934. Accordingly, a group of Minalin’s townsmen who had spent the New Year’s Eve drinking, dared to break tradition by starting the New Year differently and radically. It was intended to defy the old people’s belief about starting the incoming year right; otherwise, it will be your fate or destiny for the rest of the year.

Since then, the “brotherhood of the ladle”, dares all men of Minalin to dress up like their women, whether young or old, every January 1st. Their aim is to prove that the aforementioned traditional belief is still contestable by your own decisions.Traditions are practices that are handed over from generation to generation, which are revered and respected — but they need not necessarily be the guidelines on which to hinge one’s future.