Tell it to SunStar: Rice and fiestas, bread and circuses

THE recent Sinulog revelry made me ponder on how different Cebuanos are from the Roman populace back in AD100. At that time, the satirical poet Juvenal said that the people no longer cared for political involvement. What they wanted was panem et circenses (bread and circus games). In other words, they would have been perfectly happy to have the equivalent of our Sinulog every single month, or even every week. So long as bread filled their bellies and entertainment was freely available, they didn’t care a fig about how their government was ran.

Cebuanos, on the other hand, are very political animals who care about their government, often scheming, plotting and feuding, bashing each other in media, while engaging in intrigues and conspiracies. Sometimes, they resort to character assassination (which can become physical). But besides being highly political, Cebuanos also love a fiesta with lots of singing, dancing and stomping about, wearing extravagantly fancy costumes. And, of course, they love to eat.

Roman circuses in the Coliseum involved gladiator competitions, animal hunts, mock executions and throwing men and women who misbehaved to the lions in the arena. It all apparently delighted audiences at the time. The more pain, blood and gore, the better.

The true origin of our Sinulog seems to be a mishmash of myth and history. Several centuries ago, Cebuanos were living happily among their tribes, hunting and gathering, procreating or sitting under coconut trees waiting for the nuts to fall or climbing up to get them. But, one day, they were surprised to find men sailing onto their shores in ships, unlike the local bancas. When the big, white-skinned, long-nosed men landed on Cebu shores, the natives were filled with curiosity. They weren’t particularly wary especially since the strangers, who spoke an odd tongue, were bearing unusual gifts like cloth, glittering stuff and tools like knives. They were happy to accept those things and were hospitable, which made the strangers hang around and make themselves at home.

The preachers had a figure of a child they called the Santo Niño (holy child) swathed in simple clothes, which they showed to the Cebuanos who thought it was quite inappropriate to have a god wearing such drab clothes. So they went about making a fancy red velvet robe for it (using the cloth the strangers had given them) and adding the glitter they’d also received. And they stood the idol up on a little pedestal of coconut wood and carried it about, chanting and dancing.

And so the tradition has persisted to this day, with Cebuanos themselves donning even more elaborate costumes than the those of the Santo Niño. Each year, the extravaganza becomes more and more bizarre and ostentatious. Now and then, as they hold up replicas of the idol, Cebuanos remember the religion that the strangers had said the holy child had started. But what they love most of all is the fun and games and merriment as they hold up the well-dressed idol and swing him about.


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