Tips & How To's

Traditions You Can Find Only in the Philippines


Cultures vary. Cultures are sui generis — they are unique. But what do we mean by ‘culture’?

Culture is defined as the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, and institutions. In simpler terms, it is ‘a way of life.’ For the purpose of this article, we will use culture to actually refer to ‘subcultures’ – specific behavior patterns (customs), or traditions.

In this post, we’ll discuss Filipino subcultures that are ‘uniquely Filipino’ (although that’s a debatable assertion) — from classic Filipino customs to quirky cultural peculiarities. So, let’s start!

Classic Filipino Customs

Before we dwell into the bizarre cultural quirks you can only find in the Philippines, let’s do a run at the classic Filipino tradition of festivity, relationship, religion, art, and fashion.

The Myriad Colors of Merrymaking

Filipinos are a happy people. Social scientists are in awe at how Filipinos manage to smile, laugh, and celebrate family, life, and hope even in the darkest of days. It is worth noting that most of the local festivities in the county are religious in origin (largely influenced by Judeo-Christian ethics), but unlike any other country with similar religious background as the Filipinos, they celebrate these festivities the Filipino way.

Fiestas

In the Philippines, especially in the countryside, when you say party, it actually means “fiesta”; and in Fiestas, everyone is invited.

What’s a fiesta?

Fiestas are held on the birthday of the patron saint of a particular town, province, or region. Fiesta is a Catholic celebration, nonetheless, everyone is invited.It is celebrated with novenas (a nine-day devotion of masses and prayers for the patron saint).

The plaza around the church is decorated with colorful buntings. On the ninth day which is the feast day of the saint, a high mass is celebrated by one or several priests. Suddenly the plaza is transformed into a mini-market where ready-made clothes, toys, fruits, and native delicacies are sold. A brass band plays after the mass and then makes a round of the immediate vicinity playing popular Filipino songs, marches and kundimans (classic Filipino folk songs). This sets a happy, festive mood in the community with residents going on splurge entertaining relatives and friends from other towns.

The town fiesta is an event that the residents look forward to. Three or four months before the fiesta the family takes good care of a piglet and chickens earmarked for the fiesta. Of course, the fiesta is an occasion when friends and relatives can be together, enjoy each other’s account of the past year’s experiences and partake of the palatable dishes prepared for a day. Children living out-of-town make a special effort to come home and be with their parents, relatives, and friends for the fiesta.

The Longest Christmas Celebration in the World

As soon as “ber” appears in a year’s month, Filipinos begin, everyone in the Philippines, young and old alike are busy preparing for the biggest religious activity on December 25. Streets, homes, and establishments light up with Christmas lights and blinkers. Houses are adorned with Christmas decors.

The nine-day masses or Misa de Gallo, celebrated at dawn when the cock starts to crow begin on December. These masses are well-attended in spite of the fact that those who attend wake up as early as three o’clock in the morning. As one walks to the church, one will notice the streets lined with small stores selling puto, bibingka and puto bumbong.

The climax of the Christmas celebration is a midnight mass on Christmas eve, December 24. The family makes an effort to go this mass. On Christmas day children dressed in their best attires visit ninongs, ninangs, relatives and friends. They kiss the hands of the elders as a sign of respect. In return the elders give them money gifts or native delicacies. Christmas is for everyone and at no other time of the year is the family more complete. Even married children who are abroad make a special effort to be home in the Philippines for Christmas.

The Lenten Season

The Lenten season is as significant to the Filipinos as Christmas. Christian Filipinos commemorate the passion and death of Jesus Christ with as much sincerity and seriousness as His birth.

On Ash Wednesday, the faithful go to church were a sign of the cross is imprinted with ashes on the forehead of every season. Chanting of the Pasyon (Christ’s suffering before His death) in the native tongue of the region begins on Holy Week and is held at certain hours of the night. On Holy Thursday, the chanting goes on the whole day and night until the following morning. By Good Friday, the whole town is deep in meditation on the passion and death of Christ on the Cross. In Church one can observe individuals as well as families praying the Stations of the Cross.

Good Friday is a day of fasting and penance to atone for one’s sins. A penance quite common in the barrios is for a penitent to cover his face with a black cloth and walk down the streets beating his back with thin bamboo sticks until blood oozes out of his wounds. In afternoon the devotees flock to church for sermon on the Seven Last Words of Jesus as he hung on the cross.

Easter Sunday is a memorable day. The faithful wake up early for the salubong, a re-enactment of the Risen Lord’s meeting with His Mother at dawn.

There are many more religious celebrations and festivities observed by the Catholics in the Philippines which vary from community to community and all of which give honor and glory to Jesus Christ this is according to all Catholics believers.

Other Religions like the INC, the Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, Born Christians and some Biblical in teaching do not celebrate the so called celebration.

Courtship, Marriage, and Death

What does traditional Filipino courtship looks like? Well, it’s a class act. But before we talk about how men pursue women, a little context is in order.  

Filipino women during the Spanish era were generally shy, refined, and inhibited. This is due to the prevailing doctrine of the Church governing domestic practices for men and women. The Church set strict guidelines as to how should men and women behave. This was strictly monitored.

For example, a girl was not seen alone with a man; he did not touch them, not even her hands when talking to each other they were always an arm’s length apart. A man got to know a woman only by being a friend of the woman’s trusted friend who would help in case he wanted to have the opportunity to see the girl of his dreams. He did not directly approach the woman; that was impolite. On the other hand, the woman did not face a man alone; to exchange glances with the man was unbecoming.

A man who had the courage to ask for a date had to pass several tests. First, he got the permission of the girl’s parents to visit their daughter. Once he was permitted, his formal visit was in full attendance of the older members of the family who also participated in the conversation. The hardest test was how to convince the girl to say yes because the woman played hard to get. She kept putting off her answer. When the man finally succeeded, the girl was strictly chaperoned during their date so that he was not even able to whisper romantic words.

What does it take to pursue a woman during the early days? Courage and talent. Yes, talent.

Harana (the act of serenading a lady at night) requires talent, and harana is a classic move. A man who does this, usually gets the lady in the end.

What about marriage?

As a predominantly Christian culture, the Filipinos consider marriage sacred. As such, marriage is a ritualistic process. So, how do Filipinos celebrate the union of two people in love?

Before marriage, The groom is expected to speak to the parents of his intended about his intentions, then his parents as well must call on the bride’s parents to gain their approval and to plan the wedding, a practice called pamamanhikan. This custom appears to have been established by the Philippine pre-colonial Malayan forebears.

It is traditional for the groom’s parents to pay all the wedding expenses, though some couples now pay for their own wedding. The bride’s parents may also offer to assist. These arrangements can be discussed during the pamamanhikan.

The couple may choose to have an engagement party. The bride may be given a shower and the groom a bachelor party by friends according to the American tradition. The bride’s parents give their daughter a despedida de soltera (party to bid farewell to single life), a formal dinner as a send-off to the bride near the date of the wedding.

The bride usually dress up in a traditional all-white wedding gown and the groom is handsomely clad in the traditional barong. In addition to the gown, the bride often wears a veil and carries a bouquet of flowers. A garter may also be worn and removed by the groom during the reception.

The bride prefers her dress to be made by a skilled couturier rather than be bought off the rack as superstition decrees it is bad luck for a bride to try on her wedding gown.

The groom wears a barong Tagalog, a suit, or a tuxedo depending on the theme and the formality of the wedding. You will be able to see some men wearing the Barong Tagalog at the wedding, a thin and transparent dress, most of the time white of color with a shirt under it.

How’s the wedding ceremony administered?

Unlike in Western weddings, it is not traditional in Philippine weddings for the bride’s parents to state that they are “giving” their daughter away in marriage.

After the wedding march, in Catholic weddings the nuptial Mass proceeds as with a regular Mass but usually with readings and a Gospel relating to marriage. The wedding rites follow the delivery of the homily. Under the scrutiny of the priest, the couple declare they have chosen to marry each other of their own free will. They exchange vows, then the rings and arrhae are brought to the priest to be blessed. The bride and groom exchange rings, then the arrhae are blessed and given by the groom to the bride. The Bible is presented and blessed. Then the Unity candle is lighted, a ceremony adopted from the Protestants.

Then usually the placing of the veil and cord follows, just before the General Intercession, as the couple is instructed to kneel side-by-side. The veil is placed over the head of the bride to signify submission and of the groom to signify his responsibility in supporting the family. Once the veil is pinned in place, the cord is looped over the bride and groom in a figure eight, the symbol of infinity. Both the veil and the cord have to remain as the couple continues kneeling until after the Communion. The veil and cord can be removed immediately after the nuptial blessing, allowing the couple to participate in the Sign of Peace.

The concluding rites take place following the prayer after Communion. The bride and groom are presented to the crowd and may kiss. They sign the marriage contract. The primary sponsors also affix their signatures as witnesses. The bride and groom leave the church and may be showered with flower petals, confetti, or rice (though the throwing of rice is currently discouraged by the Church as it is wasteful).

No matter what time of the day the wedding is, a lavish sit-down meal is usually served at the reception venue following a Filipino wedding.

The couple are toasted by the best man, maid of honor and the father or both parents. As with Western weddings, there is a cake that the bride and groom cut and feed to each other, but it is rarely served to the guests. The couple have their first dance together. The bride may throw her bouquet and the groom the bride’s garter. Doves, which signify peace and harmony, may also be released.

A keepsake reflecting the theme of the wedding is given to each lady guest. Sometimes all the guests may be given favors. Pieces of cake or other edible gifts may be given but most favors are more permanent souvenirs, like fans or paperweights.

In Luzon there is a tradition of holding a money dance wherein cash gifts are pinned to the clothing of the bride and groom as they dance.

Filipino Cultural Quirks

1. “Psst!”

What’s the best way to call a Filipino’s attention? A succinct “Psst!”. There are anecdotes from overseas Filipinos stating the fact. There’s a consensus on what’s the best way to summon a Filipino in a foreign crowd. A more rude version of “Psst” is a “Hoy!” [You!]

2. “Excuse me.” *Ducks, extends arm like a diver*

When a Filipino walks right in front of you, it’s customary to not just say “Tabi po” [Excuse me], but to also duck (yoko) with extended arms and clasped palms stretched downwards (just like how a diver lounge their arms when diving).

Many believe that this is unique to Filipinos.

3. The Filipino time

The Filipino time – a different timezone within the +8:00 timezone – refers to the infamous habit of Filipinos to arrive late of the agreed upon time. In smaller towns and cities with laidback lifestyle and with no punctilious master of efficiency to enforce strict time-keeping, arriving within 15 minutes of agreed time is without serious consequence.

This attitude towards time is braced by a prevalent assumption — “hindi naman magsisimula yan on time” [It will not commence on time].

4. Extended family of extended family

Filipino families are noticeably tightly woven. The reason why retirement homes in the Philippines are as scarce as snow in the tropics is the fact that old members of the family are taken care of until they finally “retire.” This devotion, and sometimes sense of obligation, extends not just to immediate relatives, but also to in-laws, and in not uncommon cases, in-laws of in-laws.

5. The penchant for everything melodramatic

The working class and the high class can both relate to “teleserye”

One movie marathon of Filipino flicks would make a foreigner think that Filipinos are a sentimental bunch. The sadder the “teleserye” (serial soap opera) the better. The more vicious the “kontrabida” (antagonist), the stronger the conflict, the more complicated the plot – as in the bestfriend of the cousin of the mother of the heroine has finally revealed that the latter was adopted which the heroine confirmed from a long ago forgotten midwife – the happier the ending. This is because Filipinos can easily relate to struggle – Mt. Everest huge struggle – and the triumph in the end gives them hope that they, too, one day, may overcome all obstacles in the tradition of King of the Ring Manny Pacquiao, and live happily ever after.