Tag Archives: Catholicism

Good Friday Penitencia 

Background: The informant is a 59 year old woman. She was born in Pampanga, Philippines and moved to Los Angeles when she was 29-years-old. The informant still frequently speaks to her family and occasionally visits her family in the Philippines. The informant grew up as Catholic in the Philippines, converting to evangelical Christianity during her time in Los Angeles. She was exposed to the tradition when living in the Philippines. 

Context: The context was that, it was Good Friday, and the informant was reminded of her traditions, and how they differ from America.


EM: For Good Friday, do you know what they did to Jesus when they, how do you call it, you know they hit Jesus on the back, how do you call it?

Me: “Um, whipping?”

EM: “Whip them? Whip Jesus right? … So in my country on Good Friday, it’s like penitence, they call it penitence, I don’t know what the word penitence means. In Tagalog, we call it penitencia, it’s like, like hitting themselves to suffer, thinking that God will forgive them of their sins so what they do is on Good Friday, they [men] go and they cover, you know, they act like they’re Jesus that they, uh, someone will cut the back of their their back with uh, how do you– laser, is that a laser, or like a blade, they cut their skin on their back and then they have this little, like a whip, like a made up whip, made of bamboo, like little tiny bamboo, and they hit themselves, like hitting their, um–”

Me: “So basically they create like this blade or like some tool made out of bamboo and then they whip themselves?”

EM: “Yes and you can, it’s gruesome because you see blood all over their back. One of my brother did that.”


Informant: Though a portion of her religious tradition, the information found the process to be very gory and gruesome. Her tone was very uncomfortable and she didn’t seem to enjoy speaking on it.

Mine: Penitence is the act of wishing to repent for one’s action, which may result in self-flagellation, also called self-penance, which is the action of whipping or beating oneself in order to repent. By committing the action on Good Friday, it parallels how Jesus was crucified, by both being extremely bloody and gruesome. Though the men are whipping themselves to repent, given the holiday, it also seems that they are trying to inflict pain on themself in order to take the pain away from Jesus, though he lived a long time ago. It seems to state that since Jesus suffered on Good Friday, everyone should have to suffer alongside him. In this bloody way, a covenant is formed with Jesus, that they will be together. Also, it forms a strong bond with the other men who are committing self-flagellation because they are all suffering and going through a harrowing experience at the same time. The informant’s description of it as gruesome reflects that one doesn’t have to enjoy every single aspect of their culture. There is not a homogenous brain in everyone, rather people are able to make decisions on what they like or dislike based on their own preferences.

To see another version, Tiatco, A. P. & Bonifacio-Ramolete, A. (2008). Cutud’s Ritual of Nailing on the Cross: Performance of Pain and Suffering. 58–76.

Wigilia Oplatek Ceremony – Unleavened Wafer Bread

Main Performance:

At Wigilia (Christmas Eve), JK the informant participates in a toasting ceremony with the entire family. Everyone gathers around in a big circle and collects shots of Goldwasser in ornate metal glasses for a toast. The eldest of the family (traditionally the eldest male, but modernized to just be the eldest), begins the ceremony with a toast recounting the successes, hardships, and points of growth for the family in the past year. During this time they usually harken back to previous Wigilia’s and tend to insert anecdotal humor to entertain the circle. This toast ends with the setting of intention for next year, a wish of a “Merry Christmas” to everyone and a request for everyone to enjoy the feast that is to come.

At this time, anyone else who wishes to speak up and toast as well then dives in as people drink the Goldwasser (or Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider if they are younger than eighteen). Once all the toasts have finished and the drinks have been drunk, one of the kids goes around and passes out oplatek to everyone.

Oplatek are rectangular, wafer-like unleavened bread that have been blessed by a priest. They often depict the Virgin Marry on them as well, being very connected to “the daily bread” in Catholic church. Once everyone has an oplatek, they go around to every person and perform a “breaking of the oplatek.” This is done by each person tearing off a little piece of the other person’s oplatek and then eating it. Afterwards, they wish each other a “Merry Christmas” and usually exchange words of gratitude and appreciation for the other person. In these little breakings, more stories are often told between one another, usually recounting memories those family members have shared in.

After everyone has had a piece of everyone else’s oplatek, and they themselves have shared a piece with everyone else, the ceremony is complete. From here, the entire family then moves to the dinner table to sit down for the Wigilia feast.

According to JK, his late grandmother told him that in the countryside where she was from, they had special pink oplatek for the dogs and the livestock. This was given to them as a symbolic honoring of everyone’s contributions; even the animals out in the stable.


JK was the eldest male from the Polish side of our family for a while after his father past away, and was in charge of leading several Wigilia’s and doing the initial toast. As the holiday continued to be universally celebrated by the entire extended family however, it switched to the eldest male of the whole extended family, and then to just the eldest. Thus, the informant has been both a passive and active bearer of this tradition, making the transition from passive to active as he grew older.


The ritual of breaking oplatek is an extension of the practices at the Catholic church and used to be a lead up to a later midnight mass that would be attended by the whole family after the feast. This version of oplatek thus been what some may call a more relaxed version and less religiously inclined as the informant’s family has altered it over the years; putting more emphasis on the message rather than the metaphor.


To me, this practice is a culmination of recognizing the ways that everyone in a community is connected. Since everyone is taking and sharing from everyone, it is a reminder that through sharing and selflessness, everyone can have a more complete and connected whole. Oplatek is a vehicle for the ritual to bring everyone to the realization of each family/community member’s importance to both themself and the greater “village.” It’s a reminder to the family that they always have each other and to be grateful for the bonds you have to those loved ones.


There is another collection that was done on the ceremony of oplatek that is in the archive that is linked below:



Background: The informant is my roommate and a college student. She was raised in Catholicism and often attended the related events and ceremonies, but has since begun to question her religious beliefs.

Informant: When something really important happens an angel comes and delivers you from that state to the new state. There’s this one story in the bible that I’m obsessed with about Lilith….it’s only in the Old Testament, but she was Adam’s first wife before Eve. And she I guess like refused to like, ‘submit to him’ and there’s now like a lot of speculation on the internet about what it means and like cause literally it’s not mentioned in the New Testament and people in church don’t talk about her. The only time she’s referenced in the Old Testament is like…when sinful children get lost Lilith will scoop them up and like, eat them. Like grabbing lost sinning souls and delivering them to the devil. And she’s supposed to live in like….the desert…I think. Or just like….bad places maybe. They reference her as this like evil woman even though she just didn’t want to submit to Adam. I think because of that she’s also like a feminist icon type thing now…

Me: Where’d you hear about like the new theories and references to her?

Informant: I don’t remember if it was in a conversation with another Catholic person but I think like…there’s some stuff in Jewish folklore. It was referenced in the Old Testament which probably came from Jewish folklore before like Catholicism was even a religion, and it probably worked its way into the Old Testament. But now there’s so much weird shit about it online. I think I might have seen theories about her on TikTok or something?

Me: Where’d you first hear about Lilith?

Informant: I was talking to our youth minister and someone I used to go to youth group with…I think we were just having a conversation about it and the youth pastor was just telling us about it…I felt silly because I didn’t know anything about her. But then I looked it up later and that’s pretty much all I know.

Context: This was told to me during a recorded in-person interview.

Ako Bog Da (Croatian Folk Saying)

Informant Context:

Ace’s grandparents immigrated to America from modern-day Croatia around the year 1912. They lived in the Midwest, and later permanently settled in Richmond, California, where many Slavic families—particularly those of Croatian and Serbian descent—lived together, working in the coal mines and on the docks during the Great Depression and into the Second World War. Ace recalls the families engaging in political arguments, singing traditional songs on stringed instruments, and navigating linguistic and cultural obstacles in America.

The interviewer met with Ace at his Bay Area home, where he returned after serving in the military during the 1950’s. 


INTERVIEWER: So, there were these little phrases that are either… Croatian, or… kind of, mutated Croatian? Over the years that, um…

ACE: Mu-*Mutilated* Croatian. 

INTERVIEWER: Oh! [Both laugh] That, that um… that we were talking about a little bit before we started recording—of um… just kind of like, family sayings? Do you remember any of those in, in your family? 

ACE: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Kind of, what they sounded like and approximate translations? 

ACE: One of the things that they said every day… “Ako bog da”: “If it’s God’s will”.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, interesting…

ACE: That’s all you lived your life. 


ACE: “Ako bog da”. It’s not about your goals [begins laughing] and plans–

INTERVIEWER: [begins laughing] Yeah.

ACE: –and whatever! You know, a-and I, and I thought that was an [unintelligible]teresting [dimension of it (?)] They, they… they, they never thought about the idea of, you know, uh, striving to become successful. 

INTERVIEWER: Interesting, yeah.

ACE: Yeah. Their whole life was [shrugs] “Ako bog da”! If God wants to give you children, you’ll have children. If you don’t, you don’t. If he wants you to have… more money, you’ll have more money. You know? Uh, you work hard. You… you know, you honor—you follow the ten commandments. [Yes(?)] so you want to—you got to remember the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is… [You(?)] Catholicism lives by a set of rules, you know?


ACE: Protestantism takes the position, “Well, you know, once I… I have Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—um, you know—and I believe that, you know, [hand knocks table, microphone]I… that… his grace and, you know, go through all the theological points. Uh, the significant difference is that Catholicism says that “Yes, you’re“… there is this idea of being saved. Uh, I *was* saved, I *am* saved, I am *being* saved [hand knocks table, mic]. It is a progressive process in Catholicism. 


ACE: So, you know, “Ako bog da”. [both chuckle] “If God wills it”. You know, you don’t tell God you’re saved. He tells *you*. [begins laughing]

Informant Commentary:

Throughout his interview, Ace related Croatian practices to the prevalence of Catholicism in the Croatian culture. Many of the arguments he recalls between the Croatian and Serbian families living in Richmond were rooted in either politics or religion (particularly a split between Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism). This suggests that Ace recognizes religion as both a force for unity and a force for conflict. Ace also specifically relates this folk saying to an ethos in his family. Personal ambition is always secondary to forces, usually divine, which are outside of one’s control. Therefore, the best course of action is to, as Ace says, “follow the Ten Commandments”, which flow from the same divine source.


Like many folk sayings, “Ako Bog Da” is a piece of implicit advice. Though the saying itself implies the fundamental uncertainty of future life events, Ace’s commentary uses this uncertainty to suggest a call to action. The fundamental uncertainty of future life events, coupled with the assertion that God wills certain events to come to pass and others not to, is meant to compel the listener to “work hard” and “follow the Ten Commandments”. Considering that Catholicism was used as a means of defining a folk in-group (Croats) and a folk out-group (Orthodox, Serbians) among Ace’s community, it is worth considering also that “Ako Bog Da” follows in the footsteps of many folk sayings, as implicit advice to continue practicing the beliefs of the folk group, and therefore maintain its discreteness from others.

Saint Joseph and Selling a House

Informant: “If you want to sell your house, you dig a hole and you put a statue of Saint Joseph in the ground in your yard and then when you sell your house you dig it up. Its a real estate thing. You bury it upside down, it’s supposed to make it happen faster. Joseph was a carpenter and I think its related to the holy family fleeing to Egypt. Everybody I know does it, its just what you do when you sell your house.“

The tradition of burying a statue is a kind of Catholic folk magic practiced to bring about the desired outcome (selling of house). Saint Joseph is the figurehead associated with this, a way to request divine intervention in a real world situation.