During the third week of January, all the Philippines come together and celebrate el Señor Santo Niño. Each city held a week-long festival, usually called Sinulog, with the culmination point on Sunday when the villages nearby join in the fun and parade around the city, playing music and showing their best costumes. Among the famous one are the Sinulog in Cebu, the Dinagyang in Iloilo and the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo. But don’t worry, anywhere you might be in the Philippines you’ll be able to assist to some kind of celebration.
This year I was lucky enough to join in on the fun in Kalibo, and a week later in Iloilo.
Ati-Atihan: a happy mess
Kalibo is the most important place when it comes to celebrating the Santo Niño. Famous among Filipinos and tourists for being the real deal, Ati-Athan is the first festival of this kind that took place in the Philippines, all the other ones originated from Kalibo.
A long time ago around 1210, before Spanish colonization, and Catholicism, a group of people from Borneo, fleeing their home, arrived in Kalibo. The inhabitants welcomed them and sold them lands, they held a banquet to celebrate the deal. They liked it so much that they decided to repeat it every year, a kind of Thanksgiving. Because the people from Kalibo were really black, the people from Borneo painted their face black to honor their hosts. Hence the tradition that still sticks to paint your face black during the Santo Niño.
A bit after the Spanish colonization, priests told people that the child Jesus had just driven off a pirates attack and that he had saved them all. From there the festivities turned into a celebration of the child Jesus and spread all over the Philippines. During the festival, you will see a lot of people carrying a statue of the baby Jesus wearing a really nice outfit for the occasion.
The organization in Kalibo is kept to a minimum, everyone can join in the parade and dance with the groups. You can easily take pictures with the people marching, they are really friendly and as it’s not really a parade they don’t mind being stopped. Basically, the only thing to do there is drinking beer and dance to the beat of the drums. It’s a huge street party. Each group parading just go the way they want, they don’t really have a choreography or a show planned, they’re just here to have a good time.
On Saturday they’re not even wearing costumes, just playing music. It’s a lot of fun but it can be quiet disappointing if you were hoping to see a proper parade. The festivities are just an excuse to get together and party for two days straight. The mantra of the festival is “keep on going, no tiring”.
Kalibo is a small town, so book your accommodation in advance, also note that most hotels are on the plaza, you’ll have a nice view of the festivities but you’ll also get all the noise, so if you’re planning on sleeping maybe not the best idea.
Dinagyang: Iloilo’s finest
In Iloilo, they celebrate a week later, probably because they want more people to attend. The show here is the real deal, they turned it into a competition so the teams have to give their best and the result is spectacular. The costumes are amazing, the music enchanting and the decors and accessories enticing, the result is just magic.
On Saturday the neighboring villages compete against each other and on Sunday it’s the turn of the schools to show what they’re capable of. There are five judging areas and they have to perform in front of each of them.
The only down point, and it’s a big one, is that if you don’t have a ticket to enter one of the judging areas then you won’t see the performance. Without a ticket, you’ll only see them walking from one stage to another, and they often don’t even have their full costume. Sometimes some team do a small dance in the street so people can watch, it’s better than nothing but it’s still not as good as watching the show. You can watch it live though, the local news channel streams it on youtube and facebook.