JANUARY is the feast of the Santo Niño. It is the most recognizable religious image in the Philippines because it is the oldest one in the archipelago dating back to 1521. In every Catholic home, office, chapel, carinderia, tiangge, even beer houses, a statue of the Santo Niño can be found. In the Visayas, the biggest festivals are in honor of the Sto. Niño. Let us trace the origin of these festivals.

The Sinulog of Cebu:

When Ferdinand de Magallanes (Magellan) arrived and planted the cross in the shores in Cebu in 1521 claiming it in the name of the King of Spain, he offered the image of the Child Jesus, the Santo Niño as a baptismal gift to Hara Amihan, wife of Cebu’s Rajah Humabon who was later named Queen Juana in honor of Carlos I mother, Juana. The 800 natives were also baptized together with the rulers of the land. This event marked the foundation of the Sinulog dances where Queen Juana holds the Sto. Niño in her arms and blesses her people.

We all know that Magellan met his death in the hands of Lapu-Lapu and the Spanish reign came to a halt. Forty-four years later, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in Cebu destroyed the village of Rajah Tupas. During the pillage, a soldier of Legazpi found a box containing the image of the Sto. Niño. Historians believe that between the fall of Magellan to the coming of Legazpi, the natives of Cebu continued to dance the Sinulog but not to worship anitos but to worship the Sto.Niño.

The Agustinian friars who came with Legazpi proclaimed the statue miraculous and built a church on the site where it was found and called it the San Agustin Church. This was later renamed as Basilica Minore del Santo Niño.

The image kept in the Sto. Niño Chapel of the Basilica, is considered the oldest religious relic in the Philippines. This was the same image that Magellan gave to Queen Juana as a gift during the baptism on April 14, 1521.

Since 1521, the devotion to the Sto. Niño has not only grown but is deeply entrenched in the Visayan culture. Pilgrims from all over Cebu and the rest of the Philippines make their annual journey to partake in the procession and the fiesta.

In 1980, the Cebu City Government organized the Sinulog Mardi Gras. A group of students were dressed in moro-moro costumes and taught the Sinulog dance to the beat of the drums. The idea caught fire.

By 1981, with the help of practically every sector in the Cebuano community, the Sinulog project was turned over to the Cebu City Historical Committee. The Sinulog festival focused on the historical aspects of the dance linking its pagan past to its Christian present. Viva Pit Señor is the cry of the Sinulog festival!

The Ati-atihan of Aklan:

Long before the coming of the Spaniards to the Philippines, around the 13th century, 10 datus, light skinned immigrants from the island of Borneo (Kalimantan) arrived in Panay now known as Aklan. They were headed by Datu Puti.

The local people, the Atis, under Ati Marikudo, who lived upland sold them a piece of land and allowed them to settle in the lowlands. The price was a solid gold hat and a basin. When the settlement was established, Datu Puti left leaving Datu Sumakwel in charge. Because of a very bad harvest, the Atis went to the lowlanders (the Marayons) to ask for food. The Marayons shared their bountiful harvest so the Atis danced and sang in gratitude.

This became an annual event. This brought on a lasting friendship and during the celebrations, the Marayons would paint their faces black just like the Atis and even took part in their fiestas.

When the Spaniards came, they wanted to Christianize the celebration. A Spanish representative made a deal with the local leaders of the Atis as well as the Marayons. He asked that all future celebrations will be dedicated to the Sto. Niño. Today’s Ati-Atihan celebration is an admixture of the different cultures.

The ritual dancing comes from the Atis. The name Ati-Atihan means the “make believe” Atis representing the migrants from Borneo and the Sto. Niño is credited to the Spanish influence. The procession is the climax of the Ati-Atihan fiesta. The street dancers proceed to enter the Kalibo Church to give homage to the Sto. Niño.

The Ati-Atihan festival is called the Mother of all Filipino festivals. Celebrants paint their faces with black soot and locals perform in the parade with elaborate costumes. A shout associated with the Ati-Atihan Festival is Hala Bira! Every Filipino knows this phrase, but not its origin.

In the 17th century, Moro raiders from the south were attacking Panay. The defenders of the island used artillery with the battle cry Hala Bira (“Hit them!”). The gunpowder blackened their faces and after the fight they looked like the black-skinned Ati. The Santo Nino is credited with saving the locals from the Moros.

The Dinagyang of Iloilo:

Rev. Fr. Ambrosio Galindez, the first Filipino Rector of the Agustinian community and Parish Priest of San Jose Parish in Jaro introduced the devotion to the Santo Niño in November of 1967 after observing the Ati-Atihan in Aklan. The following year, a replica of the original image of the Santo Niño de Cebu was brought to Iloilo as a gift to the Parish of San Jose.

In the beginning, the observance of the feast was confined to the parish. The celebration was patterned after the Ati-Atihan of Aklan where natives dance in the streets, their bodies covered with soot and ashes, to simulate the Atis. These tribal groups became the prototype of the present festival.

The Marcos government in 1977 ordered the various regions of the Philippines to come up with festivals to boost tourism and development. The City of Iloilo renamed its festival Dinagyang.

The root dagyang means to make happy and dinagyang means merry-making. The original name Ati-Atihan commemorates the arrival of the replica of the Santo Niño from Cebu to the San Jose Parish in Iloilo. The people of Iloilo honored the coming of the image and instantly became devotees. Since 1968, it was considered a yearly celebration with a nine-day novena, an Ati-Ati contest and a fluvial procession on the last day.

In Negros, two cities that celebrate the feast of the Sto. Niño is Kabankalan, also known as Sinulog, and Cadiz, called Dinagsa Ati-Atihan.

In the frenzy of the dancing and the boozing during the Sto.Niño fiestas, the root of the celebration is thanksgiving. We cheer and praise God for His goodness, kindness and mercy!