Santo Niño de Jollibee
The Benedictine Abbey Church of Our Lady of Montserrat in Manila maintains two images of the Santo Niño: Santo Niño de Praga, holding pride of place on the main altar; another, generic type in a glass case at the back of the church.
Years ago, a devotee made a hefty donation for the Santo Niño. As the devotee slipped an envelope thick with cash into a monk’s hand, he whispered that it was specifically for the generic Niño in the back, he worried that Niño de Praga might find out and become jealous or angry.
On another level, January in the Philippines is focused on two popular devotions for one and the same Jesus Christ: Jan. 9 is the feast of the Nazareno de Quiapo and on the third Sunday of January we have the rousing Sinulog in Cebu. The Nazareno is the adult Christ, suffering a crown of thorns on his head, the weight of the cross on his shoulders; the cross on which he would later die.
The Santo Niño de Cebu is Christ as a cheerful toddler who is not bothered or burdened by the heavy embroidered clothes he wears, the crown on his head, and the orb he holds in his left hand. Nazareno and Niño are treated like two different people by devotees.
The image of the Nazareno was imported from Mexico in the 17th century, transported by a Manila galleon. The Santo Niño de Cebu, celebrated as the oldest Christian relic in the Philippines, is believed to have been the very same image Ferdinand Magellan presented to the wife of Humabon in 1521 on her baptism as Juana, for the tragic Spanish queen who has gone down in history as “Juana la loca” or “Joanna the Mad.” It is not well-known that the Basilica of the Santo Niño in Cebu also houses the “Ecce Homo,” a wood bust of Christ that is believed to have been offered by Magellan, together with an image of the Virgin Mary, both refused by Queen Juana who took a fancy to the Santo Niño.
Artistic depictions of the presentation of the Santo Niño to Juana are anachronistic by showing the image clothed as we know it today. It was probably naked in its original state. A “cousin” of the Santo Niño de Cebu preserved in the Louvre Museum in Paris, originated from a mid-15th century Flemish workshop in Mechelen (Malines). The Louvre image gives us an idea of the Santo Niño de Cebu without its finery.
After Antonio Pigafetta’s chronicle of the 1521 Magellan expedition, we do not hear about the Santo Niño till it was found on April 25, 1565, by Juan de Camus, one of the soldiers who came with the Legazpi expedition. Camus related that he came across a house that escaped the burning of Cebu. He entered and opened boxes he found there, one contained a cup and a boar’s tusk; another, tied with yarn and cloth, contained a pine box that contained the Santo Niño wearing a cloth shirt and a red hat. Camus marked the house with a cross of bamboo and took the image back to Legazpi. This led to great rejoicing, and Fr. Andrés de Urdaneta recommended that the house where the image was found be reserved for the site of a future Augustinian monastery and church.
One historical account says that the image was venerated by the Cebuanos. They dunked the image in the sea to coax it to grant them rain. Santo Niño was so powerful that the devotion spread from Cebu to other parts of the archipelago with two devotions actively encouraged by Imelda Marcos: the Santo Niño in Leyte and those in Pandacan and Tondo.
Before COVID-19, an annual procession and exhibition of Santo Niño images was held in Manila, patiently documented by Sophia University professor Takefumi Terada who studied how Pinoys translated the 1521 Santo Niño de Cebu into the modern Filipino. Santo Niño is Filipinized by vesting him with salakot and barong Tagalog or an Igorot bahag. Others depict various professions: doctor, nurse, policeman, fireman, security guard, and NBI agent.
Filipino seamen worldwide see him as sailor, captain, or navigator. He can be chemist, judge, chef, cigarette vendor, and even street urchin as “Santo Niñong Yagit” in scruffy sando and tsinelas. OFWs dress him in the costume of their adopted countries: Japan, India, and the Middle East. My favorites are the Niño as Santa Claus and the Santo Niño de Jollibee where he holds a burger instead of an orb. Santo Niño is made in our image and likeness. Filipinos “indio-genized” a foreign religion and transformed it into something distinctly our own.
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