Sinulog: Which town, city staged it first?

THE front-cover story of the Jan. 14, 1938 issue of the Cebuano language periodical, “Bag-ong Kusog,” narrates the festivities that happened during that year’s Fiesta Señor.
THE front-cover story of the Jan. 14, 1938 issue of the Cebuano language periodical, “Bag-ong Kusog,” narrates the festivities that happened during that year’s Fiesta Señor. CEBUANO STUDIES CENTER

THE northern town of Carmen in Cebu recently concluded its 51st Sinulog sa Carmen celebration on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, a week after the Cebu City Government celebrated its own Sinulog Grand Parade and Ritual Showdown in the South Road Properties (SRP).

Amid conflicting claims about which Cebu town or city started the Sinulog, a Carmen town official said they view their celebration not as competition with other Sinulog celebrations in Cebu but as an offering to the Holy Child.

A priest at the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu, however, clarified, citing a century-old newspaper, that the term “Sinulog” was initially used to refer to the fiesta of the Holy Child Jesus before it was established as an official cultural event with the formal organization of a festival.

Ordinarily, a fiesta would just mainly be a religious celebration centered on masses and merrymaking activities other than an organized festival with competitions.

‘Sinulog sa Carmen’

In an interview with SunStar Cebu Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, Carmen tourism officer Tobias Maximino Villamor said their Sinulog Festival, celebrated annually in Carmen since 1974, predates the David Odilao Jr.-led Sinulog in Cebu City that began in the 1980s.

He said the town still has two original dancers who can attest to its origins.

“Nag-una lang mi gamay sa pag sayaw-sayaw ingon ana, but for the Fiesta Señor, sila (Cebu City) gyud ang nag-una,” he said.

(We just came ahead in terms of the dancing, but for the Fiesta Señor, it was really in Cebu City where it began.)

“Bisan pila pa na ka image (No matter how many images there are), they are the same child Jesus,” he added.

He said the Sinulog in Carmen began in 1973 as Ati-atihan (a festival from Aklan province) introduced by Fr. Jose Motus, the parish priest at that time.

It was renamed Sinulog a year after, during the tenure of then mayor Virginio “Benyong” Villamor. From celebrating it on the third Sunday of January, the town moved it to the fourth Sunday of January.

Villamor explained that the town celebrates its own Sinulog due to the presence of a Sto. Niño image which was discovered in Luyang, a coastal settlement engaged in pre-Hispanic trading between local and Chinese merchants.

He said a folktale has it that the image, now owned by the entire Luyang community, was discovered by a fisherman many years ago.

The tourism officer highlighted that while Carmen celebrated the Sinulog for years with contingents from other towns, it gained prominence only last year when contingents from Cebu Province chose to join the Sinulog sa Carmen instead of participating in the Cebu City-organized Sinulog Festival at the SRP.

In a shocking move, Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia pulled out the contingents of Cebu Province from the Cebu City-organized Sinulog Festival last year, citing the lack of readiness of the SRP to host the event, as asphalting of the area had yet to be completed days before the event.

Sinulog in Cebu City

Meanwhile, the Sinulog in Cebu City started with the idea of holding an activity that would show Cebu’s religious and festive side. This is in honor of the image of Señor Sto. Niño at the Basilica, which Ferdinand Magellan gifted to Queen Juana, wife of Rajah Humabon, on her baptism in 1521.

A Jan. 15, 2015 article published in SunStar Cebu entitled “Sinulog started with PE students, says Odilao,” said that when the first Sinulog started in 1980, “physical education students from eight universities and colleges in Cebu first served as dancers.”

Odilao, considered the Father of Sinulog, in Cebu City, said in his interview with SunStar in 2015 that they depended only on government support back then.

When he was relocated to Surigao, Odilao shared his concept with the Cebu City Government under the leadership of then mayor Florentino Solon.

However, prior to handing over the Sinulog to Cebu City, Odilao requested Solon to establish a foundation for the event.

Odilao said that with a foundation overseeing the Sinulog, he guaranteed that its legacy would continue, and it did, with the latest Sinulog sa Sugbo Philippines 2024.

Sinulog in Basilica

Fr. Genesis Labana, one of the friars at the Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino de Cebu, said that based on a 1931 article in the Cebuano-language publication Bag-ong Kusog, the fiesta celebration was already called “Sinulog” even before this term was formally used to refer to an organized festival.

“Which means Sinulog was once a religious activity but somehow lost its religious nature with the addition of commercialization like mga artista (celebrities) and floats and higantes (giant figures),” he said.

“However, we cannot deny that its formalization and commercialization also paved the way to its popularity,” he added.

However, he emphasized that the first Sinulog was purely an offering to the Sto. Niño, without competitions.

He said Sinulog, a dance prayer, was also already being danced inside the Basilica even before a formalized Sinulog turned it into a cultural and commercial activity.

“Base pod sa mga interviews nako sa mga karaang volunteers dinhi sa Basilica, mga lay ministers, naa na g’yuy manayaw sa sulod sa Basilica,” he said.

(Based on my interviews with the old volunteers here in the Basilica, and the lay ministers, there were already people who danced inside the Basilica.)

This is documented in at least two articles found in the now-defunct periodical “Bag-ong Kusog.”

The Bag-ong Kusog reported about the Sinulog feast in its write-up titled “Piyesta sa Senyor!-Andam sa Sinulog!” published on Jan. 16, 1931, on page 14.

Another Bag-ong Kusog article, dated Jan. 14, 1938, entitled “Ang Pangilin sa Senyor,” narrates the festivities that happened during that year’s Fiesta Señor.

“Human ipasunding sa kadalanan ang Senyor Santo Ninyo, himoan ang mga sinulog sa simbahan. Gikan sa gabii hangtud sa mga taknang halawom, makita pa ang mga tawo nga managsinulog sa balaan. Sa pagka-ingon ugma hangtud sa pagka-hapon, walay puas ang mga tawo nga managsayaw sa atubangan sa Bata nga Bathala,” reads a portion of the 1938 article.

(After the image of the Holy Child goes on procession in the streets, a Sinulog is performed in the church. From night until the early morning hours, people can still be seen dancing in reverence. Devotees dance without ceasing in front of the Child Jesus from dawn of the next day until the afternoon.)

SunStar Cebu was able to secure photos of the Bag-ong Kusog articles from the University of San Carlos’ Cebuano Studies Center last Jan. 25.

Villamor said although the town had already celebrated the fiesta before it had its first festival in 1973, he could not recall when the fiesta celebration in Carmen started.

Meanwhile, in Cebu City, the Fiesta Señor celebration led by the Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino de Cebu is now in its 459th year.


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