Christianity in the Philippines
When a habit becomes a custom…
by Ronnie Hoyle
RELIGION forms the basis of life for almost every Filipino, from birth
to death and beyond: it follows them everywhere, and everywhere they
follow its dictates as a ritual of daily living. It almost seems as if
they would be lost without the order that ritual gives them throughout
Most rites, rituals and festivals are based on the teachings of the
Roman Catholic Church, but many of them are only practiced in the
Philippines version of Catholicism which has built up over the centuries
to control the habits of the local population. But when does a habit
become a ritual or a custom?
Eating food three times a day may be a necessary habit, but does it
become a ritual when it is performed at precisely the same times? Saying
the same prayers to God at exactly 3 pm and 6 pm every day is
undoubtedly an imposed and controlled ritual in the Philippines, but is
It has to be said that underlying Christianity in the Philippines is the
previous animistic beliefs of the people who built up their own customs
and rites over the untold number of centuries they spent in the islands
before the Spanish claimed the archipelago for the production of gold
and silver, as well as sugar and spices, to be sent back to the homeland
via the Pacific coast port of Acapulco in Mexico.
With some 2,500 inhabited islands and 168 known languages and dialects,
plus 35 distinctive tribes, there was previously no cohesion between the
islands until the arrival of the Spanish and the imposition of their
Catholic ways, so each community had their own gods and different
traditional ways and means of appeasing them and celebrating or
acknowledging their successes, whether it was the birth of a carabao or
a successful crop of rice.
Most of the traditional rites, rituals and customs that were previously
followed by the islanders were quickly suppressed with the fear of
retribution of the new god instilled by Spanish missionaries if they did
not follow the imposition of the new creed: it was often achieved with
This was done in an effort to gain control over what the Spanish thought
were pagans and primitives, just as the Spanish conquistadors did in the
Caribbean islands at the same time when they were exploring an expanding
world in the 15th and 16th centuries and fighting to control it against
the takeover bids mounted by the Portuguese, French, Dutch and English.
The fact that the so-called pagan rituals did not die out with the
conquest of the islands in the Philippines and the subjugation of the
people and their conversion to Christianity can be seen every day
throughout the islands: cockfighting, for instance, was a practised
custom long before the Spanish arrived, even if it was a Spanish priest
who eventually drew up the rules and regulations which still govern the
ritual of how the sport should be conducted.
It is still a practiced custom to go cockfighting on certain days of the
week, but it has no religious significance…apart from the fact that
Filipinos love gambling and worships the bird in the hand!
Another pre-Spanish custom or ritual – which is still carried out on
many islands, mostly in secret – is the visit to the shaman or
witchdoctor, but this could be claimed to have a religious background.
The local ‘hilock-hilock’ is usually the first one to be consulted in
times of illness, since many Filipinos think they cannot afford the cost
of conventional medicine and Western-trained doctors or dentists: kill
or cure is still often acknowledged as an acceptable way of life in many
towns and villages of the islands.
Often, more faith is put in the shaman with his time-worn herbal
medicinal cures - even when he may only pass a ‘magic’ egg or a stone
over the belly to determine an internal illness - than the
professionally-trained doctor who uses modern technology costing
thousands of dollars and years to perfect.
In many cases, cures by these faith healers and herbalists are
surprisingly effective and the Government itself has stipulated that
conventional medical companies may not investigate or use folklore cures
from the countryside of the Philippines without paying royalties. This
may be difficult in some cases as the healer often calls on ‘spirits’ to
intervene and affect the cure, which may only be psychophysical.
In some of the more mountainous areas of Siquijor, shamans today even
perform ritualistic ‘psychic’ operations and seem to extract what look
like bloody tumours during the so-called operations - which themselves
leave no evidence of scars even when there is the appearance of a lot of
blood on the skin during the procedure – and which are done without any
form of anaesthetic but show no evidence of pain by the patients.
Often, these ‘operations’ are performed to the accompaniment of chants
and drums which bear a strong resemblance to those which are still used
by voodoo cults in both the Caribbean and Africa.
Since some anthropologists believe that the Ati tribes – or the Negritos,
‘the little black men,’ who are often less than 1.5 meters tall with
flat noses and curly hair - may have arrived in the islands straight
from Africa, complete with their religion and customs several thousand
years ago, it may not be surprising that the rituals of the past could
still exist today in some areas which are far away from their original
Another animistic belief which has become a custom is that trees are the
homes of spirits, so they may not be cut down without making some sort
of sacrifice or seeking the permission of the spirit: small gifts of
fruit or flowers are often left as recompense, while many others collect
their small change as offerings…until the pile becomes too big for the
spirits to handle without someone spending it for them!
A custom borrowed from the Chinese system of Feng Shui is also used
widely. Created some 3,000 years ago from the Book of Changes, the I
Ching, which is at least 6,000 years old, Feng Shui is used to determine
the position of houses and offices, even down to what decorations should
be used to ensure positive energy and a better environment.
The Chinese influence is known to have existed in the Philippines for
nearly 1,000 years from archaeological finds on Alona Beach itself.
Chinese trade earthenware from the T’ang period was found lying on the
surface, together with thinner and more decorative blue and white glazed
porcelain fragments from the Sung/Song Dynasty, while clearing land near
Esther Lim Avenue.
The Song Dynasty was active in China from 960 AD to 1279 AD, so it is
possible that merchants from China may have married and settled in the
area and may have brought some of their customs with them. T’ang pottery
dates from an even earlier period, 618 AD, so it is obvious that there
was regular trade between the two countries for many years before the
Even the custom of ‘planting’ small coins underneath the corner posts of
houses when they are being built may come from this period, while the
custom of having a priest to bless the house and its’ contents by
scattering Holy Water everywhere (cover all electrical equipment before
this happens to you: water seems to be splashed anywhere from squeezed
plastic bottles nowadays!) and a short service obviously has Christian
Customs and rites relating to the sea and fishing are so numerous that
they could probably fill a book by themselves: many of them are
pre-Christian in origin, like the one that the ‘dagat’ (sea) is the home
of sometimes bad spirits which try to follow boats to land to plague the
families of fishermen and must be waved back to return to their home
beneath the waves as boats come ashore.
No one seems to know how or why dolphins have spirits or souls for some
fishermen and are regarded as taboo at any time, while other fishermen
catch and eat them, but there is a religious reason why it is customary
not to go fishing on certain Holy Days, like Good Friday: the priest
wanted everyone in church.
One of the other customs of the Filipino around Panglao in connection
with the sea - and everywhere else in the Philippines, no doubt – is a
throw-back to the hunter-gatherer days: the collection of swaki. This
is, in fact, the spiny sea urchin dreaded by divers and swimmers alike.
Inside the shell is a tiny morsel of pink meat with a salty oyster
taste, but you need hundreds to make up even a small meal. The reason
why people hunt them is sex. It is supposed to give you extra stamina
during your matrimonial duties…but then custom says this is also due to
drinking tuba, the sap of the coconut tree which is siphoned from the
Another custom which Filipinos have picked up may have come from the
Japanese invasion during the Second World War: the taking off of shoes
when entering a house, although this could also stem from a far earlier
period when houses were traditionally built on stilts and access was via
a steep ‘chicken’ ladder or steps cut out of a tree trunk leaned against
the front door…and before shoes or slippers were ever worn in the
No written records of what life was really like in the later-named
Visayas Islands seems to exist and archaeological evidence of any stone
buildings or artefacts also seems to be sparse, probably proving that
even structures which might have been used in any religious nature were
themselves made of natural materials which were eventually reclaimed by
the persistently growing tropical jungle.
Evidence exists that the first Catholic churches themselves were all of
wood construction with a nipa thatch roof…the church at Dauis was burned
down several times by raiding Moslem pirates from Mindanao who also
attacked the former church at Panglao and set it ablaze…which is why the
watchtowers were built.
Spain obviously had the most influence on tradition and custom in the
Philippines when it tried to alter the mindset of the natives to accept
the dominance of the ‘foreigners,’ which is why it is still custom for
Filipinos to eat with a spoon and fork: knives were banned for personal
use to prevent Filipinos from getting into arguments and fights and
killing their conquerors – even bolos and machetes used during the
working day were counted in and out of the stores by the priests.
For the same reason, shirts worn by natives had to be tucked into the
waistband of any trousers they wore to prevent the concealment of
weapons underneath, while the Spanish and trusted upper class were
allowed to wear their shirts outside the waistband as a way of
distinguishing the two sides: hence the custom of Barong Tagalog which
only the notables in the past wore on formal occasions.
Even the stories of the hundreds of different ghosts and ghouls which
like to eat human beings – like the Wak-wak, the Aswang and the Sigbin -
which appeared during Spanish rule and took a hold on the animistic
imagination of the spirit-believing Filipinos may have been created by
the Spanish themselves as a way of keeping the troublesome natives in
their huts so the soldiers could sleep peacefully at night.
Certain rituals have to be observed to keep them away even today, it is
claimed: prayers and invocations to God, salt sprinkled on pathways and
garlands of garlic and other wild herbs around windows and, as a last
recourse, shooting them with a silver bullet, for instance: all good
scenes from the Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and 1960s which have
turned into customary belief.
These creatures still exist, as far as numerous Filipinos are concerned,
and many claim to have seen them around Panglao since they have escaped
from the neighbouring island of Siquijor, or they know of someone else
who has had had experience of them: London itself is populated by
vampires, according to some local people who have seen them walking and
flying about the city in the Hammer Horror films, so it must be true
The difference between fact, fiction and the result of imagination which
becomes acceptable belief in the minds of the majority is a difficult
psychological problem to explain to people who grow up with superstition
as a background to normal life. When thousands of years of animistic
belief cannot be eradicated or overshadowed by 500 years of
indoctrination in another belief, it begins to show the complexities of
Almost all days of the year have some religious significance in the
Philippines since the Roman Catholic Church itself has so many saints
that there are not enough days of the year to accommodate them: this was
altered in 1969 when Pope Paul VI reduced the number of saints to be
venerated each year to 58, not including Christ, the apostles, the
Virgin Mary, or St Joseph…so people did not have to spend every day in
church and could actually go out to work!
The proviso was that if a particular church decided, it could revere any
number of saints it wanted to in the year. And many of them still do…
Kilroy Was Here © 2006