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6 Colorful Festivals in Visayas and Mindanao Honoring the Holy Child [Sto. Niño Festivals in the Philippines]

Santo Niño image holy child Jesus


Santo Niño festivals in the Visayas present distinct variations corresponding with the arrival of and conversion to Christianity in the region. 

These are the various festivals in the Visayas honoring the Holy Child - Sto. Niño.

1. Ati-Atihan Festival in Aklan

Ati-Atihan Festival in Aklan

“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.

2. Sinulog Festival of the Province of Cebu

Sinulog Festival of the Province of Cebu

Sinulog, from the root word “sulog” which literally means current of water, is a dance ritual honoring the miraculous image of Santo Niño de Cebu - a beautifully rendered wood polychrome venerated by many devotees. Contextual sources on the roots of the sinulog dance indicate influences from the Tausug war dance and martial arts because of then Sulu’s historical trade with Cebu. The Sinulog dance narrates the Spanish conquest and conversion of Filipinos to Christianity performed in front of the holy infant’s image. 

Another version is the prayer dance of the candle vendors offered in supplication and thanksgiving to the Santo Niño called “Sinug”, reminiscent of the prayer rituals of the babaylan. Queen Juana, the wife of Rajah Humabon received the image from Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. During a raid in 1565, the Holy Child was found by Juan Camus inside a wooden box in one of the burnt houses and Miguel Lopez de Legazpi ordered to build a shrine for the Santo Niño.    

According to devotees, their petitions and prayers to the Santo Niño are mostly for their family, academic accomplishments, thanksgiving, and healing from illness, among others. Those from nearby cities and municipalities, though not participating in the religious activities, also consider themselves devotees.   

There are two sides to the Sinulog celebration: the solemn part spearheaded by the Augustinians at Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu and the secular aspect, composed of festive activities organized by the Sinulog Foundation.   

The religious activities include a Novena ritual – a nine-day prayer or mass – to the Santo Niño, a fluvial procession and the Traslacion. "Ilis" (to change clothes) is one of the important religious rituals done during the festivities taking place in the Basilica. It involves only a few privileged people who are allowed to perform or witness the ritual. It is a slow and painstaking process of removing the clothes and accessories of the original image of the Holy Child and replacing his clothes with newly-embroidered ensemble and cleaned and polished accessories. 

On the following Friday after the Sinulog Festival, the priest disrobes the replica of the Santo Niño image and bathes it quickly with scented water before dressing it again in a less festive garment during the “Hubo” mass. This replica is the image that is allowed to be brought outside the Basilica for devotees in different parts of the Philippines. The scented water after the Hubo ritual is then offered to the devotees as holy water. This is believed to have pagan origins where the locals would pray to the Santo Niño for rain, and if it does not rain, they would bring the image to the sea where they proceeded to undress the image and immerse it in the water intending to keep it there until it rains.   

The secular activities commence on the first day of the novena mass. These include different Sinulog parade competitions participated by the local youths, schools and barangays. There are also singing competitions and musical concerts every night and short films and documentary competitions. On the feast day, the Sinulog Grand Parade involves contingents from different provinces competing for Sinulog-based, as well as free-interpretation dance, higantes (giant papier-maché figures), puppeteers, and floats.   

3. Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo City

Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo City

The Iloilo City government, Iloilo Festivals Foundation, Inc., and the San Jose Parish Church jointly run this annual community event also held every third week of January.

Dinagyang is a Hiligaynon term meaning “revelry” or “merrymaking.” The festival celebration began in 1968 when a replica of the image of Señor Santo Niño de Cebu was brought to Iloilo as a gift from Rev. Fr. Sulpicio Enderez to Rev. Fr. Ambrosio Galindez, first Filipino Rector of the Augustinian Community and Parish Priest of San Jose Parish Church. The term dinagyang was adopted to refer to the city’s version of Aklan’s Ati-Atihan Festival which inspired the Iloilo Ati dance competition showcasing the cultural and historical heritage of Iloilo. 

The Cofradia del Santo Niño de Cebu – Iloilo Chapter, a local association of lay people, takes charge of the liturgical activities of the festival including novena masses, selection of the new hermanos/hermanas, fluvial parade, Niño Dinagyang coronation and the religious sadsad. Aside from the regular masses, the Cofradia is also in charge of the monthly feeding program and the catechism of indigent children called Pakaon kay Santo Niño. The number of beneficiaries of the program reaches up to 400 children during Dinagyang. 

In the fluvial parade, the boat containing the replica of the image of Santo Niño from Cebu leads the procession from Fort San Pedro to Iloilo Customs House via Iloilo River and is followed by a foot procession led by the carozza of the replica of image of Santo Niño de Cebu leading to San Jose Parish Church. Devotees bring with them Santo Niño images to the culminating mass wherein the images, pregnant mothers, and children are blessed. 

A Niño Dinagyang, or the young model or ambassador of the year, is selected by the parish priest and the Cofradia. The reigning Niño Dinagyang is expected to possess good moral character while his family helps in the church activities including hosting an agape (dinner feast) for the church after the concluding mass. 

The religious sadsad is held after the ninth day of novena mass in front of the San Jose Parish Church. Sadsad, a Visayan term meaning “stomping of the feet,” is an act to please the heavens. This religious activity is often participated by devotees coming from different places and social status as part of their panaad (devotion) to Señor Santo Niño to pray for family, health, love, and wealth, among others. 

Different types and sizes of the Señor Santo Niño images are held high in one hand and the other hand waving while dancing and swaying from side to side to a rhythmic sadsad music. Children are also lifted on the shoulders of their parents for the blessing. Declarations of different prayer intentions led by the presiding priest are answered one after another by screams of ‘Viva Pit Señor’. Believed to be miraculous, devotees would also touch or wipe with a handkerchief the image of Santo Niño de Cebu placed in the carozza in front of the church. 

In 2017, a team of #NationalMuseumPH researchers documented the event and noted that some Ilonggo devotees also religiously travel to Cebu City during Sinulog Festival as part of their petition to the Santo Niño. Their faith in Santo Niño is often particularly strengthened by the answered prayers attributed to the Holy Child such as miraculous healing from terminal illness of a sick member of the family.

Dinagyang Festival is also widely known for its Ati Tribe Competition which intends to incorporate themes of Iloilo heritage through festive group theatrical dance presentation of local schools and universities in consultation with local historians. 

Besides from the veneration to the Señor Santo Niño, the group performances also include representations of warriors, babaylan (shaman), binukot (well-kept maiden), epic chanters and the Ati and Panay Bukidnon. Often, they use indigenous and recycled materials for costumes and props such as PVC pipes, bamboo, rice stalks, shells, baskets and other tools related to farming and fishing. Recently, members of the Ati communities in Iloilo have also been invited to participate as guests and be recognized as being the characters symbolically portrayed in the festival.

4. Sakay-Sakay Festival of Maasin City in Southern Leyte

Sakay-Sakay Festival of Maasin City in Southern Leyte

The festival, held every 3rd Sunday of January, consists of a fluvial parade, street dancing competitions and other festive events. 

The celebration traces its origin to the Sinulog Festival commemorating the arrival of the Holy Child’s image to the Philippines when it was gifted by Ferdinand Magellan to Queen Juana, the wife of Rajah Humabon, in 1521. As the celebration of the feast of the Santo Niño spread across the Visayas region, Maasin City held their own version of “sinulog” through the Sakay-Sakay Festival. In the past, the street dancing activities were confined to the city center and culminated in the plaza before the celebration evolved to its current form. 

The Sakay-Sakay Festival now highlights a fluvial parade starting at the Maasin City port, where bancas and pump boats, garbed with colorful banners, flaglets and various images of the Santo Niño, compete against each other for the best decoration. Aboard these boats, dancers sway to drumbeats while carrying small images of the Holy Child. Other activities include the coastal decoration, face painting, and the street dancing competition highlighting an elegantly garbed ‘festival queen’ carrying the image of the Santo Niño during the performance.

5. Kahimunan Festival in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte

Kahimunan Festival in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte

Let's explore the Kahimunan Festival in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte in northeastern Mindanao — a thanksgiving celebration in honor of the Child Jesus and a tribute to the indigenous practices in the region.

The annual Kahimunan Festival was founded in 1987 by Father Juanito Belino, the first parish priest of Santo Niño Parish in Barangay Libertad, Butuan City, where a Santo Niño Diocesan Shrine is also located. This week-long event is held every 3rd week of January and has since been widely attended by devotees and tourists alike. 

While the festival is highly associated with the Santo Niño, its underlying indigenous root is indicative of the etymology of “kahimunan,” a Manobo term meaning ‘to gather.’ It also refers to the series of rituals performed at the start of planting season among the lumadnon of Agusan, and is also referred to as the full moon festival. The ritual is composed of chanting, singing and playing indigenous musical instruments including gimbor (drums), gong, and bamboo percussions such as kalatong/karatong and kotik. Grace Nono, a renowned ethnomusicologist who hails from Agusan, accounts that Kahimunan also known as Kaamulan, is a yearly celebration among the Manobo, Higaonon and Banwaon groups of Agusan del Sur, and music is a vital component of it.

Kahimunan Festival exemplifies an amalgamation of the influence of the Catholic practice and the indigenous ritual, similar to the many celebrated festivals in the Philippines. The annual street dancing competition participated in by several groups from different parts of northeastern Mindanao is one of the highlights of the event. Participants clad in vibrant clothing and accessories, accented with baskets and arrows among others, and dance along the streets of Libertad down to the City Sports Complex. The images of Santo Niño held by some participants is also a common sight.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 400,000 visitors from different parts of the country joined the religious festivities last January 2019. With the threat of the Covid-19, the majority of the activities were suspended last year including street dancing. Nevertheless, daily novena masses were held at the Santo Niño Shrine under limited capacity to enter the shrine.

6. Pasalamat Festival of Pagadian City

Pasalamat Festival of Pagadian City

The Pasalamat Festival is a festivity commemorating the arrival of the Santo Niño image in the Philippines and in Pagadian City, Zamboanga del Sur in Western Mindanao. 

Like the Kahimunan Festival of Butuan City and the Sakay-Sakay Festival of Maasin City, Pasalamat Festival is held during the 3rd week of January. From the word “pasalamat”, the festival is held to give thanks for the blessings they have received throughout the year. The 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Santo Niño image in the Philippines was celebrated in 2021, making it the oldest Catholic icon in the country. 

The festival’s highlight is a fluvial parade (regatta), along with trade exhibitions, as well as Mutya ng Pagadian City. However, the majority of the festival’s activities were canceled from 2020 to 2021 with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A motorcade was held in place of a procession and the number of people allowed to hear novena masses was also set to a minimum in 2021. The same activity was held on January 6, 2022 wherein an image of the Sto. Niño was paraded from the city center to the Sto. Niño Cathedral Parish Church.

Last January 15, 2022, the vibrant ritual dance showdown featuring street performers and festival queens holding the image of the Santo Niño in different garbs were held. With the ongoing pandemic, only fully vaccinated participants and guests were allowed to participate. Physical distancing was observed and the performers could only remove their masks during their presentation. 

Ever wondered why the majority of the Sto. Niño festivals are held in January when the image supposedly arrived first in Cebu on April 1521? One of the known reasons for this is that Rome granted the Philippines special permission to celebrate the feast of Sto. Niño every 3rd Sunday of January.  

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National Museum of the Philippines 

Text and Poster by the NMP Ethnology Division

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