Fiesta celebrations in the Philippines are more than just a festive occasion; they’re an integral part of the religious and food culture Filipinos often indulge in as hosts or as visitors.
The feast day of my hometown parish of the Immaculate Conception, as well as my university, the University of the Immaculate Conception, falls on the 8th of December. Traditionally, the fiesta celebration is a time to bring communities together; we serve as good hosts and welcome friends, relatives, and even strangers from nearby towns. Early in the morning, as townsfolk head to the church, a sensory feast is already evident. The air is thick with the tantalizing fragrances of humba, dinuguan, and lechon, dishes prepared with care and love and served with traditional Filipino hospitality.
But long before the big feast on the table is served at every household, the barrio holds a festival at the town plaza. Nightly programs like Mutya ng Mintal, basketball leagues, free musical concerts, stand-up comedy shows, and school presentations are slated to entertain the townsfolk. We were also drawn to the fair that featured ferris wheel rides, jumping horses, and bingo games, but I am unaware if they are now a thing of the past.
And because it takes place in December, we have an extended Christmas celebration. Street decor is a hybrid between the parochial fiesta and the town’s Christmas ornaments.
As a country obsessed with Miss Universe and similar pageants, a Mutya ng Mintal beauty contest is a crowd favorite. While genuine talent and true Filipina beauty emerge, there is also potential drama behind the scenes that rivals any TV soap opera. From questionable talent performances to elaborate costumes that defy gravity, these contests offer the whole package. Prizes may be more bragging rights than a bounty of cash and the right to be paraded all over town the following day. Overall, they offer wholesome entertainment and some comedy that keeps everyone on the edge of their seats.
A procession that snakes within the perimeter of the barrio features drum and bugle corps from nearby schools, religious and civic groups, government employees, and winners of beauty pageants proudly presented for everyone to meet up close and personal. While parades are a visual feast with colorful floats, marching bands, and costumed performers, they also choke the street traffic. Thankfully, it’s been recently announced that the feast of the Immaculate Conception is now a special non-working holiday, so there’s no need to beat the traffic going to work or school.
As a kid, we often hosted my uncle, aunt, and cousins. Sometimes my godfather shows up. But later on, my college classmates, colleagues, and even my students at UIC were on hand to join the celebration. It’s bittersweet to celebrate the parish fiesta for the first time since my mother passed away.
Sometimes, friends of hosts bringing their own unrelated friends to the feast without prior notice can be described as audacious and indicative of a sense of entitlement. This behavior often catches hosts off guard, as they may not have prepared for additional guests. The host’s facial expression may be sour, but keep their warm and welcoming demeanor to enhance the sense of friendship and community. After wrapping up the day, host families may summarize their personal reviews of their friends and enumerate their immature behavior.
Humba, the slow-cooked perfection of pork belly, infused with soy sauce, vinegar, and a medley of spices, creates a magnetic pull, making it one of the more attractive dishes for visitors. Dinuguan, a hearty stew made from pork offal and blood, adds its unique aroma to the mix. Both are served with a generous portion of rice, the staple food of Filipinos. The undeniable star of the fiesta, however, is the lechon. The scent of the crispy skin and succulent meat is slow-roasted to perfection over an open flame, and guests stay patiently to get their fair share of this fiesta staple.
Some guests at fiestas may exhibit bad habits when it comes to dining etiquette. Firstly, the practice of “boodle fights,” where guests eat with their hands from a communal spread, can lead to a lack of hygiene and a messy dining environment. Certain guests may display a habit of excessive food waste, taking more than they can consume and leaving a significant amount of uneaten food on their plates.
In a blatant display of greed, fiesta guests may engage in the undesirable practice of taking home food, even when there is an anticipation of additional guests. This behavior can be seen as inconsiderate, as it may deprive others, particularly those who arrive later, of the opportunity to enjoy the full array of dishes prepared for the celebration. Hosts may refrain from calling them out for fear of reprisal or being labeled as selfish.
There are also urban legends that visitors seem to accept as gospel truths. For example, if a certain group of guests went down with food poisoning or diarrhea after visiting a household in the past fiesta celebrations, they could concoct the story that this family serves unhygienic dishes. Worse, they are accused of poisoning their guests.
“Dili ta diha kay manghilo man daw na sila.”
“Akong mga kaila gipang kalibanga paghuman ug kaon dihang balaya.”
Music-minded Filipinos are expected to belt out their best rendition of Rico J. Puno’s May Bukas Pa or Hotdog’s Manila played on cue with other popular OPM, pop, rock, and ballads at the host’s karaoke to showcase their singing prowess. It’s not uncommon for spontaneous performances to erupt from every corner. No fiesta karaoke session is complete without a few epic ballad moments.
Whether it’s a heartfelt rendition of a love song or an emotionally charged power ballad, these performances often become the highlight, eliciting cheers from the adoring audience. Of course, no karaoke experience is complete without a few hilarious missteps. From forgotten lyrics to unexpected voice cracks, these moments of imperfection are met with laughter and applause
Otherwise, it’s a battle among powerful speaker systems playing a variety of music popularly played on jeepneys ages ago.
The consumption of hard liquor is a common practice in Filipino fiestas. Guests often indulge in a variety of alcoholic beverages, including local favorites such as Red Horse, San Miguel Beer, and brandy. Others bring out higher-end spirits, such as Glenlivet whisky or Hennessy cognac, sourced from relatives abroad or brought from Duty Free on their international flight and intended to be showcased to drinking buddies, especially on occasions like this.
As the day draws closer to an end, the mood appears to slow down as guests leave their hosts in a good mood. They go home with a happy tummy, inebriated, and filled with fresh gossip from their day-long conversation with hosts. Middle-aged men disperse from drinking bouts with changes to their complexion proportional to the level of intoxication. These tipsy revelers, with laughter lines etched on their faces, embody the embodiment of the town’s fiesta spirit—carefree, unapologetically celebratory, and sometimes aggressive.
As the clock ticks late into the night, the town fiesta officially concludes. The streets, once bustling with activity, gradually transitioned from the lively chaos of daytime festivities to a more tranquil and reflective atmosphere. Styrofoam containers filled with lechon, dinuguan, and other traditional fiesta dishes become the prized possessions of lucky guests. Some individuals, having indulged in the merriment of the day, may find themselves in high spirits—both figuratively and literally. Even with telltale signs of inebriation, their demeanor remains cheerful. The cleanup crews start their work, sweeping the streets and gathering the remnants of confetti and trash. Their diligent efforts signal the conclusion of the day’s revelry and the beginning of the barrio’s return to its everyday routine.