The popular Feast of the Black Nazarene is one of the most significant festivals in the Philippines and is held on the 9th of January as well as on Good Friday.
The feast is marked by one of the biggest processions in the whole country and is observed in Manila, in a location known as Quiapo. The history of the feast can be dated back to the 17th Century. The statue of Jesus was brought to the country’s capital, Manila, in 1606.
Since Jesus was from Nazareth, and the sculptures carried were black in color, the event was aptly named Feast of the Black Nazarene. One of the most common features of this event is the presence of devout locals walking barefoot. This, it is believed, is meant to show that one has embraced humility as a way of life, and it is a sort of penance.
But here’s the interesting part – the event is not actually a feast. In fact, the only reason it’s called that is that the media and politicians have referred to it as a feast over the last several years. The proper term is Traslación – the solemn transfer of the copy of the image from San Nicolás de Tolentino chapel to Quiapo church. The actual feast happens on June 24th.
The route that the devotees take has changed over the past few years, due to structural obstacles like bridges and because of the rise in accidents. Additionally, a change in route allowed other neighborhoods to participate in this event.
As you can imagine, nothing that is located in the procession route is accessible during the Translación. Which makes perfect sense, considering that hundreds of thousands and even millions of people are on the streets, carrying the statue. In 2013, it was estimated that over half a million people participated in the event, while there are regularly millions of others who are on the street and observing from the sides!
The event normally begins at 5:30 AM and lasts well into the night, sometimes even into the morning of the next day. Some people choose to walk the entire procession, while others choose to wait in the chapel to greet the statues.
Everyone within the vicinity of the procession attempts to touch the sculpture. This is a key facet of the feast as the locals believe that doing so will create the appropriate environment for a miracle. The tradition has been passed on from one generation to another ever since the sculpture of Jesus was delivered to the Philippines in the 17th century.
The image is propped up on Ándas – a platform or a pedestal. It has wheels, and ropes that allow the bearers to pull it. Here’s a not-so-fun fact – traditionally, only men were allowed to be the bearers (mamámasán), the devotees who get to pull the ropes. However, in recent years that has changed, and women are finally allowed to participate in the event as mamámasán. But pregnant women are still barred from being the bearers, due to safety reasons.
One of the most interesting aspects of this festival is the use of a black wooden statue. Visitors often question this. The answer the locals will provide you with is that the ancient sculpture was transported from Mexico, and midway through the journey, a fire onboard destroyed much of the cargo, yet the charred statue remained intact.
But that’s just a legend; others have pointed out that the image is in fact dark through to the core because it was carved from mesquite wood.
For anyone who would like to be part of the Feast of the Black Nazarene, it may help to see the statue at Quiapo Church (Saint John the Baptist Church) where it has been kept since its arrival.
While the main event happens annually in Manila, there are other, smaller events that happen on January 9th throughout the country. The largest of those events happens in Cagayan de Oro City – if you’re unable to visit Manilla on said day, this might be a good alternative.
In addition to that, Filipino expats have also brought this tradition overseas, to other countries like Australia and United States. A smaller version of the procession is held on this day; a copy of the image is either paraded through the streets or carried within the parish bounds. At the same time, the devotees are reciting a prayer as a way of honoring Christ.
It is very important to note that attending the Feast of Black Nazarene in Manila carries certain risks. As you can imagine, it’s not exactly safe to move around in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. Being trampled to death is something that might happen, and there’s also the risk of fatigue and heat strokes.
But the risk of death is not that big – most people who die during the procession are those who are at risk of heart attack or struggling with some illness. In other words, people who should not have attended the event in the first place. If you’re perfectly healthy, chances that you’ll die during the procession are incredibly slim.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!