Philippines is festival central

Manila Nazarene fest

There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines and at least as many fiestas. By far the greatest number of the country's fiestas, however, are religious, with each district, city and province putting on parades and pageants to honour its own patron saint.

- The Independent

The grandest of them can hold their own with the much more celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in Rio. Together, they offer a unique and colourful way of exploring a country and culture still largely unknown in the West.

In recent years, I have attended many Filipino festivals in the course of researching my new novel, The Breath of Night. Friends expressed surprise that I was moving so far away from my comfort zone, but what intrigued me about the Philippines, and what makes it such a fascinating destination for a Western visitor is that, with the exception of the recently established East Timor, it is the only Christian country in Asia. Six out of seven Filipinos are Catholic with another six per cent belonging to independent churches; the remainder being Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist or subscribing to local cults – there is even one in Abra province that worships former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Meanwhile, the influence of pre-Hispanic indigenous religion remains strong. As we stopped to relieve ourselves beside a remote road in north Luzon, I was amazed to hear my sophisticated guide muttering incantations. He later confessed that he was begging the pardon of any wayside spirits that he might inadvertently have wet. When asked if he believed in these spirits, he genially replied: 'Only when I'm in the country.'

Such equivocation is part of the Filipino mindset. A character in The Breath of Night, commenting on his country's chequered colonial past, under first the Spanish and then the Americans, refers bitterly to its having 'spent 300 years in a convent and 50 in Hollywood.' Yet, while Filipinos may express a deeply ambivalent attitude towards their former colonial rulers, they have wholeheartedly embraced their religion and it is in the ubiquitous fiestas that convent devotion and Hollywood spectacle display a uniquely Philippine stamp.

The largest of these is the Feast of the Black Nazarene, which takes place in Manila on January 9. Barely has the Philippine capital recovered from the pasko (Christmas festival) than it celebrates the most important day in its civic calendar.

FULL STORY From coconuts to Christianity (The Independent)

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