As I stood in the baking sunshine with only a small circular fan to block out the rays of the sun and as sweat dripped uncomfortably out of every pore of my body, I felt completely unfazed as I stood transfixed at the colourful, exuberant sights of the marching bands and traditional dancers that paraded down the street. People of all ages, from many different islands of the Philippines, had turned up to show off their well choreographed, well costumed routines to the beat of the drum and the striking of the glockenspiel all in honour of an image of Jesus as an infant.
This is, of course, Cebu’s famous Sinulog festival: the annual celebration which marks the commemoration of Ferdinand Magellan bringing Christianity to the shores of the Philippines and the devotion to the image of the Child Jesus which was brought along with him 450 years ago. Filipino Catholics believe firmly in the miraculous nature of the image of the Santo Niño and will pray to it with their own personal intentions. Cries of “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” and “Pit Señor!” (a cry of help to the Sto Niño) can be heard on every street during the fiesta and it is unusual if you don’t carry a little (or sometimes big!) statue of the Child Jesus around with you for the duration of the feast.
A highlight of the weekend was the Fluvial Procession which took place the day before the Sinulog. Waking up at 3am (it hurt!) we took ourselves down to Pasil, one of the main communities Don Bosco work in, and joined the rest of the Salesian contingent for the boarding of one of three Don Bosco boats. Hundreds of boats in total, both big and small, took their place in the procession as they took sail along the coast of Cebu. Flags of red and yellow adorned the decks and musicians took to their drums to craft the unique beat of the festival soundtrack. We were led by the image of the Santo Niño (although a replica as the original is too fragile) for over three hours, finally returning to the port in Pasil at 8:30am.
During the boat ride, I truly saw the joy of the festival. People stood on the front-sections of their boat holding their Santo Niño high, dancing to the music as on-lookers from the shore watched on as the boats passed them. Crowds gathered along every bridge we passed and whole villages turned out to watch from the riverbank, where their homes stand precariously on the water’s edge. Having this Holy statue, which means so much to the people of Cebu, pass your home by boat must feel like a dream come true as there is no tall person, concrete pillar or obnoxious umbrella to block your view.
After alighting our boat, we joined the community in their gymnasium to watch the many groups from Pasil in their musical interpretations of the Sinulog story. The acts were being judged on their costumes, their choreography and their uniqueness. Joining the community for the Fluvial Procession and their dance competition, was a very special moment, as this authentic experience of Sinulog is not how I would experience it if I just arrived to Cebu as a regular tourist. Of course the performances were not as polished as those on the grand stage — I’m sure the budgets were far less, and the monetary prizes definitely were — however, the insight into a smaller version of the grander festival showed just how devoted the Cebuano citizens in the poorest barangays (a Filipino word for a village or local community) are to their faith and love of Jesus. In spite of the fact their performances were slightly rough-around-the-edges, there was great enthusiasm and devotion poured into their routines; real moments of jubilation and celebration!
The next day, the official day of the Sinulog, a truly captivating carnival atmosphere gripped the city. Everywhere you looked there were crowds: market vendors selling all-sorts of street food, festival-goers standing still whilst a henna tattoo is painted onto their body, children smiling as they received a helium balloon… all the while the official music of the festival was blasting out of every shop window, restaurant and home. We then joined the grand parade for an afternoon of street dancing where groups from all over the Philippines came to showcase their dancing and musical interpretations of the classic Sinulog routines.
Children dressed in colourful gowns and exotic headdresses danced their way down the 4-mile long parade route in the blazing sunshine. I found it difficult to stay standing at some points, so I have no idea how they felt under so many layers of make-up and sequins. Some wore more traditionally Filipino outfits: pretty dresses or formal Filipino shirts. One group decided to make all their outfits out of rice sacks and another decided simply to wear grey and yellow onesies. It was a feast for the eyes, and if it weren’t for the stifling heat and the busy crowds, I could have stayed there all day.
The theme of this year’s festival was “Santo Niño: Hope of the People” and this hope for answered prayers and miracles, for Catholics in the Philippines, is the cornerstone of this celebration. Although I have to admit, even as a Catholic myself, this kind of worship left me feeling confused at times. In Europe, we are not so used to chanting Christ’s name in a way that sounds almost like we’re at a rally, nor are we in the habit of waving hello to statues. Yet, in a lot of ways, the diversity of the Catholic faith is what makes it so beautiful to me.
As I have learnt over the last five months, the culture and customs of this place are so radically different to what I am so used to and getting under the skin of the culture, and trying to discover the meaning and history behind practices, is so important in my own learning and personal growth. I can’t simply say, “This is stupid.” and walk away; I need to know more.
So, I guess, for Filipinos this representation of Christ has brought so much hope to the citizens of the Philippines for centuries. Whether you are rich or poor, there really is something for everyone and everybody has a chance to celebrate, party and be merry. It’s clear to see how happy this festival makes people, and infectious enthusiasm rubs off on all. And it is within this enthusiasm, I think, that people find their hope. A hope that once a year, in spite of tragedy after tragedy, there will always be an opportunity to praise God in a lively, dramatic and highly fabulous way. Perhaps this festival is just what people need after a year of typhoons, earthquakes and other such depressing matters. Sinulog gives a chance for people to celebrate the gift of life and offers people a hope, through Jesus (infant or otherwise), that all will be well.
Have you ever experienced a festival or carnival that still carries its religious history and significance into modern day? I’d love to hear about others’ experiences.