Philippines Fiestas and Festivals
A door is a gateway to a stranger. A simple dish is a lasting bond between family and friend. A candlelight is a link to the past and a hope for the future. A Philippine fiesta or festival is much more than just a party. It is an affirmation of life, an invitation to connect, and a celebration of family and food ass we found out at the Batuan and Sandugo festivals in Bohol…
A rolling Philippine Fiesta
Wherever you stay in The Philippines, city, beach or riverside, festivals and fiestas wash in and out of island life like the sea. They say there’s one for every day of the year. I wonder if it’s more like one for every hour. They are, without a doubt great parties. But they are also much more.
The rush of warmth from the open door.
The sense of inclusion whoever you are.
The lightness of the table that can’t any hold more.
Philippine fiesta open house
Philippine fiestas are all about saints and grounded in belief. Each village in The Philippines has a patron saint and celebrates their feast day once a year. Families get together – many returning home if they have travelled afar. But it isn’t just family that’s welcome to the feast. Tradition has it that anyone can turn up and eat with a participating host. The hosts don’t know in advance who is coming, they have to guess at the catering and cross their fingers it doesn’t run out. Zynn Varquez who runs the Loboc River Resort invites us to join her at the home of her friend Nora Jumawid in the village of Batuan on Bohol. We have only just met Zynn and we have never met Nora. But from the moment we cross the door they feel like family.
The sweet hot crackle of Sunday roast
washed in raindrop, salted by the coast.
The unreserved welcome from the unknown host.
Home from home
”You may get invited to several homes so the trick is to eat just a little in each one,” our guide Grace advised us when she heard we were to take part in fiesta. No chance. The food is staggering. A whole pig or lechon has pride of place.
“It is our national dish. A fiesta isn’t complete without the lechon,” Zynn explains, adding that some families may have to borrow money to pay for it. Next up is a dark sticky pork dish called humba. Emotido; a dish with meat, raisins and eggs is a favourite of the kids. There are several chicken dishes including the ever popular adobo. We fill our plates with kaldereta (a meaty stew), prawns, sweet potatoes, rice and fish. There are spring rolls (lumpia) and pancit noodle dishes. There are sweet and savoury dishes and some that are both sweet and savoury. Filipino food takes its influences from many sources including Asia and the USA. I ask how many fiestas like this there are every year.
“Maybe 48?” someone volunteers.
“In The Philippines?” I check.
“No, just in Bohol.”
The party ramps up
More and more people turn up. Drinks are poured, dishes are served indoors and out, and the garden is full of strangers. Except they aren’t strangers for long. The host might not know their guest, but before the day is out, someone does. And the favour is then returned at another fiesta, in another village and more connections are made.
Here’s Nora explaining what a Filipino town fiesta is all about.
A place at the Captain’s table
On a walk into the village we see buses turning up with people crammed onto the roof. We wander into another open house, this time owned by a local who has built his home in the shape of a ship and opened it as a museum. We are greeted with more heaving tables. The open house policy is particularly admirable when you consider how little many Filipinos have. Like many islands in the Philippines, parts of Bohol were hit by the storms of hurricane Haiyan. In nearly Loboc the church was ripped apart and the concrete bridge still leans worryingly. Lodges in the Loboc River resort were torn down. People are only just getting back to normal, and yet…
The sunburst filtering through outstretched fingertips.
The swell and surf of the sequinned hips.
The lilting chant on the neon painted lips.
The festival dance
A few days later we find ourselves at a very different celebration. Bohol’s Sandugo Festival in Tagbilaran is an annual historical celebration that marks a 16th century peace treaty and ‘blood compact’ between local chieftan and Spanish conquistador. It is a month long festival and for a whole day each July the streets of Tagbilaran City are taken over for the annual competitive Street Dance Festival. The Sandugo Festival is another family affair and the excitement is palpable.
The tidal waves of energy wash through the streets
The beat box impov over primal beats
the sunrise call of the forest to the feast.
Dancing in the streets
People come from far and wide not just to watch but to take part. Schools, local businesses, municipal government departments – they all love to dance, drum and make music. When the parade begins, the air turns gold, potholes are ignored and a wave of sound and colour streaks through the town.
A Dance Carnival
This is more like carnival. There are scenes from the forest and the sea, children waving in and out of legs, flags waving. There is a moment of hysteria when a Manila TV soap star makes an appearance on a float. Families come together, street stalls feed the masses. There is a sense of openness and generosity. But more than anything the participators seem to be saying “I am alive.” Hurricanes may come and go and their houses may be ripped down and rebuilt but still they continue to invite and share and dance. You can get a sense of the atmosphere in this video we shot at Sandugo.
The lord of the dance
While some line up to light candles in the local church post-mass, other begin to gather in a nearby sports complex where the dancers battle it out for the title. But not before the blood compact is recreated by actors; a moving and symbolic drama. Then dusk falls and we retreat back to Loboc to quietly watch the fireflies circle the darkness at the river resort. We get the sense we are leaving before the people here have even begun but we are all exhausted by the heat and energy and music. I feel like a lightweight. The Filipinos are a strong nation. They sing and dance and eat and embrace life into the night. They share their food and they share a spirit that is bigger than us all. If only I were as resilient as this. I hug my family to me and resolve to live more. To share more. To open my house more to a stranger.
The contour of the bird’s wing in rainbow flight
The belief in the eternal, in the spark of candlelight
The spirit of a nation turning darkness into light.
People that know how to party
Take a fiesta or festival in a Filipino village. Now multiply it by perhaps another 50 or so villages on the island. Now multiply that by the 7017 islands in the country. Now add in 100 million residents, the far flung family members that return home for the events and a good sprinkling of tourists. Factor in that each village may have more than one a year. What do you have?