The Sinulog Festival is Coming!

Being a student, especially one taking Industrial Engineering, it seems that time seems to pass by so fast due to handling multiple projects from Academic to Extra-Curricular ones. Lately, I just realized that the most awaited event of the year is just around the corner. The Sinulog buzz is in the air as bazaars have finally lined up the streets and selling everybody’s favorite goods. This would be the first among the planned Sinulog Mardi Gras related blogs until the celebration comes to a close. This one is quite long since it covers the almost complete history of the Sinulog Celebration.

We can all see (and feel) it now. The sea of people, the addicting beats, the humid air, the sticky feel of sweat and the extreme excitement of spectators and Sinulog fans. Not to mention the stomach churning, eardrum busting music that fills the air throughout the day. Yet every true-blue partygoer will confess that he won’t mind the blaring music, the excruciating heat of the sun or the crushing sea of people. No – in fact, that’s what makes the event so great!

Hundreds of people, one calling: Sñr. Sto. Niño. Sure, everybody goes to the city to party but deep within that party thrive is a much deeper reason. To celebrate and give thanks to Sñr. Sto. Niño. People come from far and wide, filling the streets of Colon, Jones and the Abellana Sport’s Complex in search for the best spot and party among the rest of the Cebuanos.

Be fascinated by enchanting floats, towering higantes (Giants), and comical puppeteers. Join the crowd and be dazzled by the exotic beauties of the Festival Queens and their dancers. Watch as participant after participant passes you by, dancing their dances for the one and only Sto. Niño.


Sinulog in Cebu begins this January 11 to 30 and yes, all the hotels here are booked. The people who go to that festive event doesn’t actually care if the hotels they go to have the reputation of a whore house, as long as they can witness this annual celebration, even a camp in a friend’s yard will do.

You may have heard of it; the Sinulog is famous internationally and hordes of tourists fly in just for the Sinulog. During the Sinulog it is absolutely impossible to book a hotel room in Cebu. The Sinulog is one of the biggest if not the biggest festival in Southeast Asia. It is the mother of all fiestas.

Sinulog is a coming together of Cebuano's love for religion, dancing, and pageants. A plethora of events are scheduled around the Sinulog - from the Miss Cebu pageant to martial arts competitions. It is impossible to do the Sinulog justice whether via a website or a documentary film; you just have to be there.

Essentially, the Sinulog, which takes place in the third week of January, can be defined as the feast day - i.e. fiesta - of the Santo Niño, i.e. Child Jesus. As such, the procession in which an icon of the saint is carried around and followed by devotees comprises an essential element of the fiesta. The dancing in the parade on the following day, Sinulog Day, is a tribute to the Santo Nino. A fluvial procession is also a traditional part of the festivities; both processions take place on Saturday. Sunday is Sinulog Day.


The celebration traditionally lasts for nine days, culminating on the ninth day when the Sinulog Grand Parade starts. The day before the parade, the Fluvial Procession, a water-parade, held at dawn from the Mandaue City to Cebu City with the Santo Niño carried on a pump boat decked with hundreds of flowers and candles. The procession ends at the Basilica where a re-enactment of the Christianizing of Cebu follows. In the afternoon, a more solemn procession takes place along the major streets of the city, which last for hours due to large crowd participating in the religious event.

On the feast day, at the Basilica, a Pontifical Mass is celebrated by the Cardinal with the assistance of several bishops of Cebu. The majority of the city’s population and devotees would flock to the Basilica to attend the mass before heading out to the streets to watch the Parade.


'Sinulog' comes from the Cebuano adverb sulog which is "like water current movement," which adeptly describes the forward-backward movement of the Sinulog dance. Traditionally, the dance consists of two steps forward and one step backward, done to the sound of the drums. The dance is categorized into Sinulog-base, Free-Interpretation. Candle vendors at the Basilica continue to perform the traditional version of the dance when lighting a candle for the customer, usually accompanied by songs in the native language.

The Sinulog dance steps were believed to originate from Rajah Humabon's adviser, Baladhay. It was during Humabon's grief when Baladhay was driven sick. He then ordered his natives to bring Baladhay into a chapel where the Sto. Niño was enthroned. Moments later, surprisingly, Baldhay was heard shouting and was found dancing with outmost alertness. Baladhay was questioned as to whether why was he awake and was shouting. Baladhay explained that he found a small child, pointing to the image of the Sto. Niño, on top of him and trying to wake him up. He, at great astonishment, scared the child away by shouting but couldn't explain why he was dancing the movements of the river. Up to this day, the two-steps forward and the one-step backward movement dance is still used by the Sto. Niño devotees believing that it was the Sto. Niño's choice to have Baladhay dance what the holy child wants them to dance.


Pre-Spanish and the First Wave of Spaniards

Historians have noted that before the first Spaniards came to Cebu, the Sinulog was already danced by the natives in honor of their wooden idols called anitos. Then, on April 7, 1521, the Portuguese navigator, Fernando de Magallanes arrived and planted the cross on the shores of Cebu, claiming the territory in the name of the King of Spain. He then presented the image of the child Jesus, the Santo Niño, as baptismal gift to Hara Humamay, wife of Cebu's Rajah Humabon . Hara Humamay was later named, Queen Juana in honor of Juana, Carlos I's mother. Along with the rulers of the island, some 800 natives were also baptized to the Christian faith. At the moment of receiving the image, it was said that Queen Juana danced with joy bearing the image of the child Jesus. With the other natives following her example, this moment was regarded as the first Sinulog.

This event is frequently used as basis for most Sinulog dances, which dramatize the coming of the Spaniards and the presentation of the Santo Niño to the Queen. A popular theme among Sinulog dances is Queen Juana holding the Santo Niño in her arms and using it to bless her people who are often afflicted by sickness caused by demons and other evil spirits.

The Coming of Legazpi

After Magellan met his death on April 27, 1521 on the shores of Mactan (ruled by Muslim Rajah Lapu-Lapu), the remnants of his men returned to Spain. However, it took 44 years before the Spaniards achieved some measure of success in colonizing the islands and eventually the whole Philippines.

The conquistador, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in Cebu on April 28, 1565 and destroyed the village ruled by Rajah Tupas. In one of the huts of the burning village, one of Legazpi's soldiers named Juan Camus found a wooden box containing the image of the Santo Niño lying amongst several native idols. Historians later said that during the 44 years between the coming of Magellan and Legazpi, the natives of Cebu continued to dance the Sinulog but no longer to worship their anitos but to show their reverence to the Santo Niño.

The Augustinian friars that accompanied Legazpi in his expedition proclaimed the statue miraculous and built a church on the site where it was found. The church was called San Agustin Church but was later renamed to the Basilica Minore del Sanro Niño.

Letter to the King

After Juan Camus found the Santo Niño in the burning village, Legazpi was said to have included the incident in his report, entitled "Relation of Voyage to the Philippine Islands." It went as follows:

"… Your Excellency should know that on that day when we entered this village (Cebu), one of the soldiers went into a large and well-built house of an indio where he found an image of the Child Jesus (whose most holy name I pray may be universally worshipped). This was kept in its cradle, all gilded, just as if it were brought from Spain: and only the little cross, which is generally placed upon the globe in his hands, was lacking. The image was well kept in that house, and many flowers were found before it, and no one knows for what object or purpose. The soldier bowed down before it with all reverence and wonder, and brought the image to the place where the other soldiers were. I pray to the Holy Name of his image, which we found here, to help us and to grant us victory, in order that these lost people who are ignorant of the precious and rich treasure, which was in their possession, may come to a knowledge of Him."


Since 1521, devotion to the Santo Niño has grown and has taken root in Filipino popular piety, particularly in the Visayas; pilgrims from different parts of Cebu and the rest of the Philippines make their yearly journey to the Basilica to take part in the procession and fiesta. Starting in 1980, the Cebu City government organized the Sinulog Mardi Gras and eventually gave incentives to dance groups.

It was David S. Odilao, Jr., then Regional Director of the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development (MYSD), who organized the first ever Sinulog Parade. The year was 1980 and Odilao gathered a group of students, dressed them up in moro-moro costumes and taught them the Sinulog to the beating of the drums.

The idea caught and thus, under the direction of the Cebu City Mayor Florentino S. Solon with the help of several influential Cebuanos, Odilao turned over the Sinulog project to the Cebu City Historical Committee under Kagawad Jesus B. Garcia, Jr.. It was the task of the Committee to conceptualize the Sinulog festival and make it into a yearly event from then on.

In 1981 the following year, the concept of the Sinulog Parade was actualized, involving practically every sector in the Cebuano community. Marking its difference from another popular festival, the Ati-Atihan in Aklan, the Sinulog focuses not on the ritual itself but on the historical aspects of the dance, which, as it has been

said, represents the link between the country's pagan past and Christian present.

This kernel of culture was expanded and magnified into an organized competition between teams of dance companies; elite dance companies assemble in Cebu from all over the Visayas and compete for substantial monetary prizes. The main contested categories are for the dancing: Sinulog-Based and Free Interpretation. But there are many others, such as a prize for the best costume, best higante (a giant costume), best puppeteer, best float, and so on.

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the significance, scale and status of the celebration, the modern-day Sinulog has been somewhat artificially contrived. In fact, the 2005 was the Silver Jubilee, in other words the 25th anniversary of the first Sinulog in its present form. Before then, there was no fluvial procession, no street dancing competition, and definitely no parade with corporate floats; the only dancing was by aging female candle vendors who for some reason performed a unique "two steps forward, one step back" dance within the confines of the San Augustin Church.

The dancing is magnificent; while most dance companies adhere to the original "two steps forward, one step back" rhythm, incredibly intricate and creative choreography - for some reason almost always devised by a bayut (Gay) choreographer, who escorts the contingent and makes s

ure everyone does their job properly by way of a series of tart instructions - makes watching just about any dance company an unmitigated pleasure. As far as street dancing is concerned, the Philippines is a superpower among nations.

While not all contingents include a puppeteer or higante, all come with a band which provides the rhythm. Usually this takes the form of a drum and bugle band - drum and bugle corps are ubiquitous in the Philippines, and can be found in every neighborhood, making a huge racket night after night as they polish their act. At Sinulog 2005, however, some contingents danced to music creatively produced using native instruments.

Contingents participating in the Sinulog arrive not just from all over Cebu island but from other parts of the Philippines; in the past there have even been foreign participants. The best performances are unquestionably those by groups from distant cities, who have much more at stake, both in terms of financial outlay and pride. While some contingents are fielded by schools, the best teams are organized by towns or cities, often to publicize their local festival. The teams are referred to as tribes, such as Tribu Iliganon (the Iligan Tribe).

This brings us to an inherent paradox in the Sinulog celebration. For some reason, despite the fact that the Sinulog revolves around an icon of European manufacture and a religion imported from the West, the Sinulog has taken on a strongly native flavor. The drumming, the rhythms, and the decorations all - while ostensibly paying tribute to the Child Jesus - are inspired by pagan rituals and culture, or at least modern-day Cebuanos' conceptions of what these might be. During Sinulog, the Cebuanos unleash their tribal instincts: Western business attire is ripped off and replaced by war paint, feathers, and bamboo ornaments. And that's just the spectators.

The dance teams proceed along a circular route - known as the carousel - and eventually end up at Abellana, the Cebu City Sports Stadium. There, on a stage, they perform a completely different and far more elaborate routine than the street dancing routine, for the benefit of TV cameras. The proceedings are broadcast nationwide on live television.

One aspect often overlooked, especially by tourists, is the importance of being present during the feast day of the Santo Nino for religious Cebuanos all over the island. It is perhaps no coincidence that those who feel the greatest need to beseech the Santo Nino for divine intervention are those who can least afford to make the trip to Cebu City. The Cebu City government handles this problem well; it gets together with a rich foundation, owned by a shipping and developer conglomerate, and sets up a several dozen containers as temporary housing for the devotees who have nowhere to stay. Devotee City, as it is known, is welcomed by those who need it, as well as by those who don't - for them, the sight of people sleeping on the sidewalks is an eyesore.


During Sinulog season, Cebuanos greet each other with "Pit Senyor" which originally is a supplication to the Santo Nino. While dancing, some sing the Sinulog song, or incorporate elements of it into their score. The refrain of the Sinulog song can also be constantly heard endlessly repeated in malls and on the radio during the month of January, along with characteristic tribal drumming.

Sinulog, i-syagit ug kusog!
Pit senyor, pit senyor!
Tanan mag-saulog!

This means: Sinulog, shout it loud! Pit senyor, pit senyor! Everybody celebrate!

Sinulog has its dark side. The traffic is terrible across the city, people drink far too much, and any business activity grinds to a halt. A lot of Cebuanos wait Sinulog out at home, catching up on their reading. Perhaps because of inept organization, far fewer Cebuanos watch the street dancing than one would imagine.

So what are you waiting for? Be part of the party crowd. Get that backpack ready and plan your trip (if you’re from outside Cebu). Be part of the sea of people, dance to the addicting beat of the Sinulog, smell the humid air and feel the extreme excited during the Sinulog Grand Parade. After all, you can’t call yourself a true devotee unless you’ve experience the height of the Sinulog craze.

This feature on the Sinulog is a completely inadequate attempt to give you a rough idea of some of the flavor of this mega event.

Photo Credits: Ray Patrick Garcia, Milo Balingit

The Sinulog Festival is Coming! The Sinulog Festival is Coming! Reviewed by Vernon Joseph Go on Tuesday, January 15, 2008 Rating: 5

1 comment

  1. I am one of those non-cebuano who wish to personally experience for myself the famous festival.

    Inshalla' (god's will)..i'll find ways and means to visit Cebu and discover more what it can offer.. i luv its people..i worked with them for some years..hope to see you there, then :)