The symbolic elements in the Ilocano marriage rituals


“Danon” means “pumanhik” (negotiations before the marriage) and “basi” means domestic wine extracted from sugarcane. The suitor’s parents normally meet with the girl’s parents and agree upon dowry and the arrangement for the wedding. “Basi” is very strong tool to influence the betrothal. “No adda arak mo, dumanon ka” (If you have wine, you can negotiate), this phrase is commonly said during the “danon”. During the negotiations, both parties sit in a buri mat with the “basi” at the center. The very ritual of drinking “basi” from the same cup is simply a symbolic act of communion and strong family ties. Aside from the act of communion, Ilocanos believe that thru drinking wine or “basi” they can fully express their feelings during the negotiations.


During the negotiations, the male party lays the “dalungdong” (veil) at the center. It is a white cloth tied on four corners of it. This white cloth symbolizes purity in spirit and faithfulness of both parties to do what is agreed upon. The dowry or “sab-ong” is a certain amount of money to be given to the female party. The “bigay-kaya” which usually demanded by the girl’s parent is a piece of land, carabao or any other kind the couple may use to live independently.


“Mano” means kissing the parent’s hand. Before the bridegroom and the bride leave their house for the church, a simple rite in each home may observed. They may do the “mano” as a gesture of respect, reverence, and love to their parents. Parents, in turn, bless their children by tracing the sign of the cross on their foreheads with simple invocation “Dios ti manga-asi” (“May God show kindness on you”).

Antonio in his book entitled: An Inculturation Model of the Catholic Marriage Ritual tried to translate the short prayers in English: “Heavenly Father, we acknowledge that you are the source of all life and goodness. With your gift of children you give joy to the union of couples and it is you who determine each person’s vocation in life. Look down on your son/daughter, who is about to receive the sacrament of matrimony. Enlighten his/her heart and mind and strengthen his/her will so that each decision and action that he/she makes be always in accord with your will. May you allow this event to bring forth the fruits of deeper relationship among us and our families, thereby united in supporting our children and brother/sister who are getting married. We ask this through Christ your Son, our Lord.”

Marriage in the Ilocanos is a big family affair whereby all the relatives of both parties are invited. Through this affair, relatives who have not seen for quite a long time have the opportunity to see each other again. Families of both parties are then challenged to unite, to come together and rally behind the couple. This event may bring about closer or deeper relationship among members of the families concerned. This is one reason why an Ilocano wedding is costly.


The arrhae is a gift in the form of coins put in a container or wrapped with a cloth and it is presented by the groom to the bride during the wedding ceremony. This symbolizes wealth or in simple words “earnings” by the groom which he faithfully gives to his wife. Historically, this ceremony preceded the latter exchange of wedding rings. The most important addition from the Hispanic Rite was the blessing and giving of the arrhae. This is mentioned in Isidore of Seville and is found in the Liber Ordinum. Isidore and the Liber incorporate this symbol into the ceremony of marriage and make of it a pledge of the bridegroom’s fidelity to his spouse. The celebration of the sacrament of marriage with the use of arrhae introduced by the missionaries was truly Roman but with considerable Spanish flavor. Elements such as the two rings, arrhae, candles, and some prayers, which have been incorporated in the Mexican ritual, found their way into the Philippines rituals as well. Later on, other elements, particularly the use of veil and cord from the Manual of Toledo, would further enrich it. The Ilocanos consider the arrhae as a very important tool in the marriage rites.


The tradition of gift-giving is another notable feature of various cultures, where it is sometimes remarkably displayed on the occasion of marriages. Gifts offered and received on this occasion take on a sacred character and serve as token of commitment as well as to solidify personal relationship between individual and families. The ritual of presenting of gifts has long been a part of the Roman Rite of marriage, but only in the context of the rite celebrated in the church, as best exemplified in the exchange of rings. The deeper meaning of these gifts expresses a relationship of people to nature and the rites of marriage should not lose this cosmic dimension.


When the ceremonies in church are over, everyone proceeds to the house of the bridegroom or some other place (reception) designated for the wedding banquet. For the more affluent, the procession is often accompanied by a band of musicians. Upon arrival at the house, the newlywed couple is welcomed by a boy and girl with lighted candles. Ilocanos believed that the lighted candles symbolize the torch that will light their way toward married life. Aside from the lighted candles, rice is also used to welcome the newlywed while ascending the house stairs. The showering of the couple with grains of rice is necessary in the marriage rites. Rice is of particular significance for the Ilocano people. Being their staple food, it is identical with life itself, with existence, with work and with survival. It is indeed sometimes referred to as “grasya” or blessings. In showering the couple with grains of rice, their relatives and friends wish them the blessings of life itself.

To bring out the religious significance of this action, a short prayer is recited using metaphor and goes this way “nabuslon koma ti grasya nga maawatyo aggapu ken Apo diay ngato a kas kabuslon ti bagas nga agtinnag kadakayo” (May the blessing that you receive from the Lord above be as abundant as the rice grains that come down upon you like rain from heaven). The Ilocanos recognize the crucial importance of rain. Most of the agricultural land in the Ilocos provinces is arid and rain-fed. The growing of rice is dependent on the rain. No or little rain means scarcity of production that may lead to crisis.


Aside from showering of the couple with grains of rice, petals of flowers are also showered upon them. Short prayers are recited upon throwing of the petals “May your married life, resemble the scent and fragrance of the flowers from paradise that adorn your path.” The flowers are described to have come from paradise in order to remind them of the first couple, Adam and Eve. Eden, which these flowers recall, signifies many things. It reminds the couple of the life of happiness and peace which our first parents enjoyed. But it recalls also their fall from grace. The flowers then serve as an encouragement and warning. They are encouraged by the knowledge that their marriage is in God’s plan and God’s desire for them is their happiness. But they are also cautioned that when they lose sight of God and listen only to their own selfish selves they are bound to fall. As an adage says, “Married life is not always a bed of roses”.


The newlyweds kneel in a buri mat while some prayers for them are recited. This mat is a sacred thing for it symbolizes something durable and strong for the couple to have stronger relationship.

The wedding banquet ensues, where the bride and groom are made to feed one another. Dancing follows as soon as the couple finish their meal. The couple dance to the tune of “Dungdungwenkanto” (I’ll be loving you so dearly). This music is preserved by the Ilocanos exclusively played during wedding rites. The couple then proceed to the center of the crowd and dance while their godparents and other relatives pin peso bills on their clothes. The symbolic buri mat serves as dancing floor for the couple. The sturdy and strong characteristics of this buri tree have transcended into the Ilocanos culture of wedding rites.


The presence of the wedding cake in marriage rituals is an example of western influence on the Ilocano culture. The sharing of food between the bride and the groom is very common in any wedding celebrations. However, to the Ilocanos, sharing of food has a deeper meaning which is communion. It makes of the two “companions for life” in the sense that companion has the meaning of “the one with whom you share your bread/food”. This is followed by the cutting of the wedding cake together and feeding each other a piece of it. This symbolizes the ways in which they will nourish and share with each other in their life together as couple.

Feeding each other a piece of the cake is not the end of the ritual. The couple further share it with their godparents and other relatives. Eating the couple’s cake by these people means accepting the responsibility over the couple’s welfare, and whatever kind of life the couple may undertake, they should be there to rejoice with them in time of joy and be ready to assist them in time of sorrow. In bringing out the religious aspect of eating cake, a short prayer is recited by the local “manglualo”.


The day following the wedding is a time of thanksgiving. This is a day when the dead relatives of both parties are honored and remembered through prayers (palualo) and simple party, either at the house of the bridegroom or the bride. Before the local manglulualo or the community’s prayer leader recite the rosary, an “atang” has to be set aside as food offering. These are sample foods of all the dishes they cooked. It is simply a way of expressing the communion that still exists between the living and the dead. Through these ceremonies, the couple is now said to have been blessed by the living and the dead and is now ready to face the challenges of a married life.


The Ilocos and the Ilocanos have not been spared from the effects of modernization and cultural exchanges. Despite this rapid urbanization and industrialization age, the Ilocano culture of marriage retains its own identity. There remain some firmly established values and stable cultural elements. The
Ilocanos go through civil weddings when they don’t have sufficient money to spend in a church wedding; but the moment they save money for this purpose, they won’t have second thought of solemnizing their marriage vow in the church and following the old customs and traditions. Ilocanos may migrate to other countries either temporarily or permanently, but they wait for an opportunity to return to their native town or village to practice marriage rituals which are very important to them. The Ilocano rite of marriage with the use of symbolic elements allows them to see their own lives, histories, their meaning-system mirrored in their rituals. Marriage among Ilocanos is a community affair. Kinship system is strongly emphasized. Therefore, everybody in the village is concerned for the welfare of the newly-
wed couple. What the Ilocanos need to preserve this culture is the inculturation of these rituals to other culture and to allow other people to adopt these
marriage rituals.#


Alejandro Dumlao, “Ancient Marriage Customs Among the Ilocanos,” The College Folio I (February 1911) 135-41

Isidore of Seville, De eccleseasticis officus In Migne, Patrologia latima. English translation by Mark Searle and Kenneth Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992) 119

Korbinian Ritzer Le Mariage dans les ‘eglises chre’tiennes (Paris: Edition du Cerf, 1970) 300-2

Rodolfo Reyno “Customary Wedding among Ilocanos,” Philippine Magazine (July 1938) 336, 346, 348

William Antonio, “An Inculturation Model of the Catholic Marriage Ritual,” The Liturgical Press, Collegeville Minnesota 2002, p.134

The Filipino ritual on wedding and beddings, Filipino Heritage: The Making of a Nation, Vol III. Ed. A. Roces, Manila: Lahing Pilipino Publishing, 1978 p. 596-597

About the author:

Dr. Maribeth A. Magpali is a researcher and a DepEd Education Program Supervisor.  She was a 3-time Outstanding School Paper Adviser of her DepEd Division during the time she was still a teacher.

She is also a recipient of two international awards in literature: International Novelist Award in 1991 and International Literature Award in 1992, awarded by the International Book Club in Hong Kong.

She is the co-author of a book published in Hong Kong in 1993, “Sa Pagyuko ng Kawayan,” an anthology of short stories written and published in Hong Kong by the Tinig Filipino Magazine.