Lucban is pretty much synonymous with the famous Pahiyas Festival, celebrated every 15th of May – and it is this Philippines festival that made Lucban a must-see destination for those exploring the decadently multicultural and multifaceted country that is the Philippines. The festival dates back hundreds of years long before the arrival of the Spaniards and started out as an animistic ritual for the locals to honor their gods for their bountiful harvest and believing that celebrating this great fortune would ensure another bountiful year ahead.
When the Spaniards arrived around the 16th century, the festival was appropriated to suit the Catholic taste (as it was the same with the Kalibo Ati-atihan). The Spanish friars introduced San Isidro Labrador (Saint Isidore) to the natives and shifted the allegiance basically from the animist gods to the Christian God whilst continuing the tradition of thanksgiving and prayers for more abundant harvests to come. The townsfolk started to bring their best harvest to the church for its blessing and later on, with the increasing bounty they started putting it outside their doors instead with the statue of San Isidro going out in a procession.
With Filipinos being naturally creative, the Lucban townspeople started hanging their harvests on their windows as well and then, the entire façade of their houses along the procession route. You would usually know the trade or industry of a particular house by the decorations themselves – rice stalks – means a rice farming family lives in that house; hats- meant there lives a hat-making family and so on and so forth. Don’t expect a house decorated with lingerie or kinky adult toys here though, however, we kind of had a wistful thought of that while we were strolling along the procession route. The procession route changes each year so that other houses may have a chance of participating in the festival. Giant papier-mache effigies are also paraded around town with a lively brass band, adding to the lovely fiesta atmosphere.
One iconic Pahiyas decoration is no other than the “kiping”, a colored (and edible) rice paper that is similar to the tacos of Mexico. The Galleon Trade between Manila and Acapulco (Mexico) in the 17th century was a major influence with this Pahiyas icon. A Lucban local by the name of Juan Suarez sailed to Mexico for training of some sorts, and was introduced to tacos in the port of Acapulco. Being a culinary talent, he tried to fashion out his version of tacos upon his return to Lucban using locally available ingredients (water, ground rice, salt and food coloring) – and thus, kiping was born.
Kiping is made by mixing all ingredients with water and pouring the mixture into a “kabal” leaf- a sturdy and wide leaf, while dripping the excess liquid (kipi) and then steaming it for 2-3 minutes. It is then hung up to dry after which you remove the kiping from the leaf to dry on a flat surface. You then put the “buntal” fiber for hanging and then you flatten (kipiin) several pieces by putting a heavy object on top. Kiping eventually became part of the Pahiyas Festival making the festival more colorful than ever – with chandeliers or “arangya” made out of kiping and sunflowers made to decorate the houses along with the vegetables. A drop by the local and surprisingly well-stocked souvenir shop can get you some kiping to take home (which is about PhP75 for six different colored pieces in a box). The kiping is usually deep-fried like prawn crackers and dipped in locally made organic spiked vinegar. It can also be grilled or microwaved and dipped in sugar, cheese powder, sour cream or however you like it.
In the ‘60s the local word “Pahiyas” meaning decoration was formally added to name the celebration. Each house would compete for the Grand Pahiyas Prize and when the day turns into night, the brightest and the most lighted house wins the “Kutitap Award” – suddenly transforming the entire town into a Christmas village in the middle of May.
The Pahiyas festival usually starts around the morning of the 15th May with a mass in its beautiful centuries old Lucban Church (photo below). The present church actually sits on the ruins of the previous churches on the same site. The first one was built in 1595 and was destroyed in 1629, and a second church was constructed between 1630 and 1640 but was seriously damaged by fire 1738. The present church was completed in 1738 and the convent in 1743. Right by the right side of the church was the site of the La Casa de Doña Ana. It was the site of a big “bahay na bato” (house made out of stone – an architectural style that is usually attributed to the well-off Filipino families as opposed to the “bahay-kubo” – also known as the nipa hut and is usually attributed as the abode of poorer Filipinos). The house, which was owned then by Pedro Nepomuceno Y Villaseñor and Ana Maria Herrera Y de la Concepcion, was built in a neoclassical style a few years after the couple’s wedding in 1842. It was the only house with the neoclassical style in the entirety of Lucban and was the favorite place to stay for prominent guests coming from Manila and neighboring towns. The house was subsequently named in honor of the wife for her role in establishing Hospicio de Pobres de Lucban, a facility taking care of Lucban’s destitute and sick.