Before the Covid-19 pandemic, every last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, many people in the City of Lipa would take to the streets for what was considered one of the most fun events — or at least, for them — of the year: bulingbuling! This is the annual tradition of drenching with water passing vehicles and passers-by, not to mention each other. One might think that such a juvenile tradition, which preys on the unsuspecting, would be practiced only by children. But no; one is wont to find lining the roads adult men and women as well with their hoses, dippers or even pails happily splashing water at anything or anyone that moves.
Not that anyone, if asked, would even remotely know what bulingbuling really means. The significance of the tradition, after all, is all but forgotten. The common explanation one hears is that it is a celebration of St. John the Baptist and the Biblical event of his baptizing the Lord Jesus at the River Jordan. This is all well and good — except that celebration of the saint’s feast is done annually by the Church on the traditionally-observed date of his birth, the 24th of June.
|Thailand's Songkran Festival is remarkably similar to the bulingbuling. Image credit: Chiegmai-Vacation.com.|
This is why in many towns and localities in the country named San Juan1, or in parishes or communities which recognize Saint John the Baptist as their patron, they hold similar celebrations involving the dousing of vehicles and people with water. The festivals in Balayan in Batangas and San Juan in Metro Manila, which attract a lot of media attention, are examples of these.
That the bulingbuling is traditionally held on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday offers the first clue as to the true significance of this occasion. In her 1989 book “Halupi: Essays on Philippine Culture,” author Corazon S. Alvina wrote that “during the 1870s, the Filipino term in use for Mardi Gras was bulingbuling2.”
Mardi Gras, originally French and translates into “Fat Tuesday,” is a “carnival celebration, beginning on or after the Christian feasts of the Epiphany3” and ends on the day before Ash Wednesday. “Fat Tuesday” implies a final chance for feasting and merrymaking before the sacrifices expected of all Christians the following day, the start of the Lenten Season. The length of the celebration varies depending on the locality. For some, the “final three-day period before Ash Wednesday4” is considered Mardi Gras.
This bit of information is definitely worth paying attention to because in the “Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala,” the first dictionary of the Tagalog language which was published as early as 1613, the word bulingbuling was used as the definition for the Spanish word “antruejo5.” This word refers to the three days preceding Ash Wednesday, when the period of Lent officially commences.
Alvina noted in her book that by the 20th Century, bulingbuling would be reinterpreted as “as a St. John the Baptist ritual on June 246.” It may seem natural to equate the hurling of water with the act of Saint John baptizing Jesus. However, author Jean Paul Potet noted in his book “Ancient Beliefs and Customs of the Tagalogs” that in Europe, from where the Spaniards brought Christian traditions to the Philippines, in contrast the feast of Saint John the Baptist is celebrated with “bonfires that blaze at night7.”
Potet likewise noted that bulingbuling as it used to be practiced by the Tagalogs also involved face smearing but that this “petered out during the Spanish period and only the sprinkling of water survived8.” He also noted the similarity of the bulingbuling to the Thai Spring festival “Songkran,” which is sometimes referred to as the “water festival.” Potet concluded, therefore, that both bulingbuling and the “Songkran” are of Southeast Asian origin.
This conclusion may not necessarily be true, however. In the Xishuangbanna Prefecture in China, the ethnic Dai people celebrate a Spring festival of apparently Buddhist origin similar to the “Songkran.” This festival has “religious rituals that invariably end in merrymaking, where everyone ends up getting splashed, sprayed or doused with water9.” The commonality between the two, along with the bulingbuling celebrated by the Tagalogs, is that they are celebrated during what would in the temperate zone be the arrival of the season called Spring.
Keeping in mind that the Tagalogs had a word for their own Spring festival as early as the 17th century, and that their festival involved the sprinkling of water and face smearing, the latter eventually dropped during the Spanish era, then there is every likelihood of the Spanish friars repurposing the festival into Mardi Gras before the arrival of the Lenten Season.
In Batangas, the bulingbuling used to be celebrated more widely. In recent years, however, this tradition has become more and more associated with the City of Lipa as citizens of other towns started giving the tradition up. While the water festivals in Thailand and in the Xishuangbanna Prefecture are both considered tourist events, the bulingbuling in Lipa has been known to be seen as an annoyance and even cause fights.
Where in Thailand, the water sprayed on people is scented, regrettably some idiotic segments of society in Batangas see humor in lacing the water they spray on people with urine or scooping the water up from canals.
Notes and references:1 “San Juan” is Spanish for Saint John.
2 “Halupi: Essays on Philippine Culture,” by Corazon S. Alvina, published 1989 in Manila, originally published by the University of Michigan.
3 “Mardi Gras,” Wikipedia.
5 “Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala,” by Juan Jose de Noceda, Pedro de San Lucar, et. al., first published 1613.
6 Alvina, op. cit.
7 “Ancient Beliefs and Customs of the Tagalogs,” by Jean Paul Potet, published 2017 in Morrisville, NC, USA.
9 “Water Splashing Festival in Xishuangbanna, China,” by Kelly Pang, published 29 December 2020, online at China Highlights.