Sto. Niño Festivals: A cultural showcase?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013


I HAVE always been fascinated with festivals all over the world that highlight culture and religion so I have decided to write a column today that traces the history and origins of the country's Sto. Niño festivals and absolute reverence of devotees to the Holy Child Jesus.

The festivals in the Philippines are often religious in nature, providing the perfect occasion for feasting, fellowship and family reunions. They are the sticky, sentimental stuff that hold together long distance relatives who come home for family reunions on such occasions.

Even tourists have discovered this feast as a unique spiritual and cultural experience which should not be missed. Fireworks accompanied by a loud band marching in the streets, dancers clad in colorful aboriginal costumes with painted faces, people racing to get a front-seat view of the parade … these and more are the common sights in the Philippines during the whole month of January, which is dedicated and devoted to the Santo Niño, the Holy Child Jesus.

Different parts of the country call these festivals differently. In Cebu, they call it Sinulog; Ati-Atihan in Kalibo, Aklan; Binirayan in Antique and the much anticipated Dinagyang in Iloilo which will happen this weekend. I feel very lucky as I will have a family coaching schedule in Bacolod and Iloilo this weekend and the visit to my hometown will be a wonderful opportunity to reminisce my childhood days where I will drop everything just to find the best spot to see up close the tribes performing their complicated dance moves.

In Metro Manila, counterpart fiestas are termed “Buling-Buling” in Pandacan; “Lakbayaw” in Tondo; “Pajotan de Sto. Niño” in Caloocan and “Bambino Festival” in Pasig City.

The Santo Niño de Cebú ("Holy Child of Cebu") is a Roman Catholic figure of the Child Jesus highly similar to the Infant Jesus of Prague. The statue is the oldest Catholic relic in the Philippines and permanently housed since 1565 at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño in Cebu City, Cebu. Pilgrims or devotees from different parts of Cebu and the rest of the country make their yearly journey to the Basilica to take part in the procession and festival. Actually, many Cebuanos consider the Feast of the Sto. Niño as an extension of the Christmas Season.

From what I gathered, Spain’s expedition led by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, which is the first expedition to circumnavigate the world (confirming that the world is round), is the same expedition that brought the image of the Sto. Niño and the Catholic faith to the Philippines on April 7, 1521.

In search of spices, his fleet came to the village of Zubu (now Cebu City). Magellan planted a mission cross on the site, befriended and converted into the Catholic faith the local chieftain, Raja Humabon, and members of his tribe. As a baptismal gift, Magellan gave the image of the Sto. Niño to Humabon’s wife, who was christened Queen Juana.

This event is the basis of Sinulog dances. (Sinulog is derived from the Cebuano word “sulog” which means to flow like water; hence the forward-backward dance motions.)

A popular theme in presentations is that of Queen Juana holding the Sto. Niño in her arms and using it to bless her people afflicted with various illnesses.

Held on the third weekend of January, Sinulog lasts for nine days and on the 9th day ends with a grand parade. On the eve of the fiesta, a fluvial procession is held at dawn with a statue of the Sto. Niño carried on a pump boat, decked with hundreds of flowers and candles. Candle vendors at the Basilica continue to perform the traditional version of the dance when lighting a candle for the customer, accompanied with songs in the native language.

Recently, the festival has been promoted as a tourist attraction, featuring a contest among contingents coming from various parts of the country.

Since 1521, devotion to the Santo Niño has grown and has taken root in Philippine popular piety, particularly in the Visayas, placing Cebu as the Cradle of Santo Niño devotion in the Philippines.

From Cebu, the Augustinian priests brought the devotion to Manila, Iloilo, Laguna and Tacloban.

In Bohol, five municipalities adhere to the patronage of the Child Jesus – advancing to the north as far as Ilocandia and reaching down south in Mindanao.

Devotees of the Santo Niño from all walks of life attest to the many miracles and favors granted by the Infant Jesus to all those who revere and call on Him for help. It is said that a voluminous book is needed to contain all the testimonials of those who have experienced miraculous healings and mercies through the Santo Niño.

I was doubly lucky that my National Conference talk organized by the Julies Franchise Corporation was timed with the Sinulog festival last Sunday so I took the opportunity to visit Fuente Circle with CEO Opep Gandionco and his family together with Art Zamora, the newly hired General Manager. We watched in awe the dance movements and the intricate floats and experienced first-hand the pulse of this cultural showcase.

The Ati-atihan was likewise celebrated last Sunday in Aklan to commemorate the purchase of the lowlands of Panay Island in the 13th century by the Bornean datus from the aboriginal inhabitants called Aetas.

Similarly, Iloilo's Dinagyang Festival will be celebrated this weekend. Participants are usually dressed in colorful costumes, paint their faces in many different ways and dance to the rhythm of the drums. The street dancing and merrymaking is comparable with the Rio carnival in Brazil that some writers dub it as the “Mother of All Philippine Festivals.”

Just like Sinulog, all roads will lead to Iloilo City this weekend.

Though these religious feasts may differ in dates and styles, everyone agrees that they should be fun – as befits the birthday of a kid.

Amidst the pomp and gaiety of it all, though, the celebrations should center on one and one purpose only: to honor and thank the Holy Infant Jesus.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 24, 2013.

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