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Ati-Atihan Festival - “To Become Like Ati,” | Sto. Niño Festival in the Province of Aklan, Visayas Philippines

Featured Article: Festivals in the Visayas honoring the Holy Child - the Sto. Niño Festival in the Province of Aklan, more popularly known as Ati-Atihan Festival. 

“Ati-Atihan” means, “to become like Ati,” one of the indigenous groups in the island of Panay. This is observed every third Sunday of January in six municipalities of Aklan namely; Kalibo, Makato, Malinao, Ibajay, Batan and Altavas. While this may be frowned upon in Western cultures, particularly in the US as participants put on a "black face", participants have always seen the applying of soot on their faces and bodies as part of their vow and sacrifice in exchange for blessings or granted wishes from God.

The image of the Sto. Niño de Kalibo at the St. John de Baptist Cathedral is the center of the celebrations. The provenance of the image as well as when the celebrations started is unknown, but the active and unceasing participation of the masses is a proof that the people embody the spirit of the festival.

According to devotees, their yearly participation in the sadsad (street parade) is part of their panaad (vow). They do not only seek spiritual, emotional and physical healing, but also pray for life-partners, a child for childless couples, passing of board exams, and success in their endeavors. 

Before, the participants in the parade would use añil or indigo in marking a cross on their foreheads. Others would mix soot, from burnt coconut husks with oil to paint themselves black, to imitate the skin color of the Ati. After the parade, some participants would go to the healing ritual paeapak (literally means “to be stepped on”) at the church grounds wherein an image of the Sto. Niño is rubbed or placed over a particular part of the body that needs healing. 

One of the highlights of the festival is the individual and group street dance competition, which starts after the morning mass. The preparations including the fabrication of their costumes, dance choreography, and practice for the accompanying drums begin as early as August. In the afternoon, a procession of the different images of Sto. Niño on carosas (carriages) is held and followed by the transfer of the Sto. Niño de Kalibo to the shrine in the evening. 

Although annually security officers have been deployed for the weeklong Ati-Atihan Festival,  this year will be different due to the pandemic. Many of the rituals will not be performed such as the parades and street dancing, keeping in mind the necessity of following health and safety protocols.  In Aklan, current guidelines do not allow outdoor gatherings while religious activities would continue by limiting those participants wanting to join them. 

Text and poster by the NMP Ethnology Division

©The National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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