Santo Niño de Tacloban | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Santo Niño de Tacloban

/ 05:09 AM January 20, 2023

That the Philippines has the longest Christmas season in the world may explain why the most popular celebrations on the first month of the year happen to be for the Nazareno de Quiapo (Jan. 9) and the Santo Niño de Cebu with its Sinulog festival on the third Sunday of January. What is the significance of these contrasting depictions of the same person: one is of a cute, child-king, while the other is a dark, suffering adult? People’s choice seems to incline toward the Santo Niño, because there are other venerated images aside from the Santo Niño de Cebu feted on a date different from the rest: for example, the Santo Niño de Praga in San Beda University (last Sunday of January) and the Santo Niño de Tacloban (June 30).

When it was being transported from Manila to Tacloban in 1888, the Santo Niño was lost at sea. It was recovered months later and was returned to Tacloban on June 30, 1889. Upon its arrival, the image was credited with a miraculous end to a cholera epidemic. Since then, its feast is celebrated on June 30.

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In 1968, G. Mennen Williams, US ambassador to the Philippines, attended the Tacloban fiesta as a guest of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. He related what he experienced to his family in a long, detailed, typewritten letter dated July 1, 1968. Before Tacloban, Williams first visited Cebu, where he met with provincial and local officials, then University of San Carlos administrators, and a labor organizer. His next stop was Iligan, where the mayor bragged that Maria Cristina Falls was twice the size of Niagara Falls. The mayor’s exaggeration clashed with reality, yet Williams was impressed. He dropped by Cagayan de Oro, met with Xavier University administrators, and proceeded to the Del Monte plant in Bukidnon before joining the Marcoses on the Presidential Yacht 777 off Tacloban.

They were feted by Gov. Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, younger brother of the first lady, who had contributed meals for 100,000 visitors. Being the only diplomat invited to the fiesta that began with a long procession led by many priests and bishops, Williams “was announced several times over the loudspeaker while the priests were trying to keep the crowds from getting restive while waiting for the Santo Niño.” Mass was disrupted by rain “that sent everyone scurrying. Two priests, who had sat next to me, and whiled away an hour and a half of waiting with theological talk, pushed me onto the covered high altar, practically in a lap of a bishop.” Williams was drenched during the first Mass, and baked in the heat during another Mass next day:

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“The sermon and Mass were long, and we really would have broiled had we had to stay in the hot sun. The Marcos’ young son, Bongbong, read the first lesson. He did very well indeed and with great poise. He read the lesson in both Masses, and in the parade in the afternoon drove a golf cart with the Santo Niño. The elder daughter (Imee) is quite dignified and the younger one (Irene) is quite spirited.”

After a fluvial parade, Williams remarked: “for some reason, the Santo Niño is fond of water, and when on a previous occasion it had not been given a boat ride, the city suffered from rain and flood. No chances were taken this year. A dockside reception was impressive with a military band and many dignitaries. The Santo Niño was taken from the presidential yacht by the President and his family and the Governor of the Province, and put in its own tall flowered bedecked float…” Williams walked in the two and a half hour procession, behind the First Family, together with other VIPs. After them came the Santo Niño on a float that passed “thousands and thousands of people all carrying candles.”

As an American, this was all new to Williams, but he was struck by the “simple faith and deep devotion of the Filipino people. It is a profound and wonderful thing and is basic to their whole way of life … for me, the whole procession was a deeply moving spiritual experience because of the evidence, [a] demonstration of faith by the Filipino people.”

As a historian, I wish diplomats left more personal reflections on paper. Unlike the time of Ambassador Williams, diplomats today are advised against a journal or diary lest these be “subpoenaed,” with both the official and personal leaked. Discretion and secrecy is history’s loss.

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