The Moriones Festival
During our visit to the Philippines this past Christmas, Mr. Noodle and I spent an unforgettable day in my mother's hometown of Mogpog in the province of Marinduque, a small hamlet only 45 minutes from Manila by air (and interminable hours by land-sea route). Throughout the year, the town's residents hum along in serene obscurity - that is, until Eastertide, when a remarkable Holy Week event known as the Moriones Festival takes over the enclave and surrounding communities.
Forget about chocolate-bearing bunnies or peeping marshmallow chicks: Moriones is not for the faint of heart or weak of faith. Marked by colorful costumes, dramatic pageantry and dismaying acts of religious devotion, the festival is one of the most intense in the world and is wholly unique to the small island province of Marinduque, located between the larger Luzon and Mindoro islands of the Philippine archipelago.
(photo from J. Richard Stracke)
Although it served as the original archetype for other provinces' Easter events, Moriones is different in that it is neither focused solely on the Crucifixion nor does it involve the rather disturbing spectacle of modern-day penitents actually being nailed to a cross, which usually receives the bulk of sensational media coverage. Instead, the focal point is Saint Longinus, believed to be the Roman centurion who, upon piercing Jesus' side as He suffered on the cross, was miraculously healed of his partial blindness by Christ's blood splashing on his eyes. The soldier immediately converted to Christianity and was eventually martyred by beheading on the orders of Pontius Pilate (additional source: Catholic Saints.info).
morion (Sp. morrión), a type of helmet worn by 16th century European soldiers (Dictionary.com) and, in the context of the festival, refers to the aforementioned masked participants. As for the men and women portraying the Roman legionaries, custom dictates that they are volunteers who wish to fulfill vows of penitence or to make pleas of divine intercession for ill health or other personal misfortunes.
Beginning on the Monday before Easter Sunday, the moriones roam town streets, playing pranks on adults and traumatizing young children for life. During the Good Friday re-enactment of the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), they appear in a more somber and ominous role: tormenting the figure of Christ, burdened by a heavy wooden cross and accompanied by barefooted devotees whipping themselves in bloody penance. The culmination of the festival is the chase, capture and symbolic 'beheading' of St. Longinus by these quasi-centurions in the town square on Holy Saturday (note: the saint's actual date of death took place well after the Crucifixion).
Marinduquenos take great pride in this vibrant folk-religious tradition and none more so than the wonderful residents of Mogpog, from where it originated. True to their joyous nature, they have managed to find a way to observe one of the Catholic Church's most revered holy events with appropriate gravity and somberness but in a colorful, creative and celebratory way.
Colorful miniature moriones
Filipino Easter Food?
Unlike in other parts of the world, there are no specific foods that are particularly correlated to Easter in the Philippines. While special breads are baked in many European cultures and the traditional Easter table in the United States might hold a succulent baked ham, Filipinos take their fasting periods quite seriously and adhere to the Lenten prohibition of meat consumption on Fridays. On Easter Sunday, the celebratory feast is apt to consist of the same traditional festive fare (such as lechon) served during other holidays or is borrowed from other cultures (Italian pasta dishes and American-style baked hams are quite popular). After 40 days of penitent eating, anything goes!
Lacking a dish specifically linked to Easter in the Philippines, I turned to one of Marinduque's most popular products - the uraro cookie. Also known as arrowroot, uraro is a starchy tuber that is ground into a fine, easily-digested flour more commonly used as a thickener (The New Food Lover's Companion, 27). Rejano's Bakery has been producing these bite-sized treats since 1946 and is considered the island's best source. After numerous attempts, I still have not cracked Rejano's secret recipe so instead, I offer this gluten-free shortbread recipe featuring arrowroot flour. (For another uraro recipe, see Lemon Arrowroot Wafers)
Yield: Oops, I forgot to count! Best guess is about 3 dozen.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cups arrowroot (uraro) flour
1 cup almond meal
1/2 cup rice flour
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees;
2. Cream butter and powdered sugar;
3. Add egg yolk and mix well;
4. Add flours in 1/2 cup increments, beating well between each; it should form a rather dense but soft dough which you can refrigerate to firm up;
5. To form cookies, pinch off a piece of dough and roll between your palms to form a grape-sized ball; place on a baking sheet lined with Silpat or parchment paper and repeat;
6. Bake at 325 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until edges are golden. Cool and serve with tea, coffee or cocoa!
Kain na! (Let's eat!)
For the real deal, check with Rejano's Bakery to find a retailer:
Santa Cruz, Marinduque
Tel: (042) 3211069