Looking Back

History, devotion, revelry rolled into one

/ 12:15 AM January 18, 2017

You can tell the exhausted revelers from the Cebu Sinulog from the passengers of other arrivals at the airport baggage claim area simply by looking at what they wear (Cebu t-shirts, henna tattoos or face paint) or what’s in their carry-on baggage (take-out lechon, Rosquillos, Otap, dried mangoes, smelly danggit).

I smiled when I saw a young woman with a Santo Niño tucked into her tote bag of cosmetics, the tote hung fashionably on her shoulder with a small box of lechon Cebu. But what made my day was the sight of an albeit burly man carrying a toddler-size image. Did that Santo Niño have its own seat or did it fly free on the man’s lap.


Then there was a senior citizen in a wheelchair cuddling yet another toddler-size Santo Niño. If these images were so loved and venerated, they couldn’t be packed and checked in like baggage. I wondered if they were stored in the overhead bin during the hour-long flight to Manila.

Cebu had rain all of last week, and the weekend forecast put a damper on Sinulog Sunday, which fortunately remained comfortably cloudy all day. Rain and wind came with a vengeance Monday morning, like a full bladder released. Pagasa had a scientific explanation for the weather’s fickle mood; however, the devout say that Santo Niño kept bad weather at bay for the fluvial procession on Saturday and the snake-like procession, with floats and street dancing, on Sunday.


The big debate in Cebu last weekend was whether the decision to jam cell phone and wifi signals during the festivities was right or not. Security experts claimed this was necessary to foil remote detonation of explosives planted by terrorists along the procession route. Some, who put their own comfort over the good of the majority, argued that it ran counter to the constitutional right to speech. Then there were the devout who insisted that security was unnecessary  because Santo Niño could protect everyone! In the end everything went well, and everybody had a good time.

Contrary to popular belief and the claims of some historically challenged people, the Sinulog Festival is not as old as the devotion to the Santo Niño which goes all the way back to 1565. Sinulog is an invented tradition, adapted in 1980 from the Kalibo Ati-Atihan, by the then Ministry of Youth and Sports Development regional office in Cebu. It was so successful that the provincial government appropriated it, promoting it so well to attract tourists such that it grew into what Cebu now claims to be “The Mother of Philippine Festivals.” The last century seems as dim as prehistory to many people these days—few remember that tourist promotion during Marcos’ martial law gave birth to the present Ati-Atihan, Dinagyang and Sinulog festivals.

In a nutshell: When Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521, a mass baptism was held in Cebu. The baptismal recipients included Raja Humabon (christened Carlos—after Charles V, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), his wife (christened Juana) and hundreds of their subjects. Magellan gave Humabon’s wife with a Santo Niño image as a baptismal present (she chose it over two other religious images offered—Virgin Mary’s and Christ’s.

Then Magellan made the mistake of poking his finger into a local dispute between Humabon of Cebu and Lapulapu of Mactan, which led to his death in the 1521 Battle of Mactan. The image disappeared into our lost history—until 1565, when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived and took Cebu from Raja Tupas, Humabon’s nephew and one of his men found the Santo Niño, amid ruins, in a box inside one of the abandoned houses. He took the image to Legazpi and his navigator, Andres de Urdaneta, who took it as a sign that God approved of the conquest and Christianization of what was to become Spanish Philippines. A church was built in the area where it was found, and the first Spanish settlement was named in honor of the Santisimo Nombre de Jesus (Holy Name of Jesus) in 1565.

Sinulog grew out of the Santo Niño devotion, such that in the festival the image has been reduced into a prop, a focal point in the frenzied dancing. In Sinulog we see history, devotion and merrymaking all rolled into one.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: cebu, History, opinion, Religion, Sinulog, Sto. Nino, Tradition
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