Drumbeats fill the air. Colors paint the city. Dancers and drummers flood the city streets. Prayers rise with the smoke from the candle flames. A million smiles bloom everywhere. Viva Pit Señor! Sinulog is here.
Usually on the third Sunday of January every year, Cebu extravagantly celebrates its grandest festival, Sinulog. It is a day-long celebration famous for its showcase of Sinulog dances and chants. For years now, the grandeur of the Sinulog festival has caught the attention of many other countries around the world. People from all other continents visit Cebu City not only to watch the performances, but more importantly, to experience Sinulog itself.
Sinulog is celebrated in honor of Cebu’s patron, Señor Sto. Niño, the Holy Child. All the dancing, the singing, chanting and praising are dedicated to the Sto. Niño. History has it that the Sto. Niño was a baptismal gift from Spain handed by Magellan to Hara Amihan, later named Queen Juana. Centuries past, a huge fire destroyed the building that housed the Sto. Niño. Everything was burned down to ashes, save for the statue of the Sto. Niño, whose face was burned black but whose clothes and cape remained untouched by fire. The name of the festival—Sinulog—was derived from the word “sinunog” which means “burned” and refers to the blackened face of the Sto. Niño.
It was for that miracle that Queen Juana’s Sto. Niño statue became sacred and holy. People started believing in the divinity of the Sto. Niño. From then on, the devotion to the Holy Child has grown so fast that Cebu suddenly became an island of the Sto. Niño’s devotees.
Today, however, the popularity of the Sinulog festival has been accounted more for its cultural relevance than its story of religion and history. It is now rather associated with dancing to the drumbeats and colorful costumes, chants, and, “Viva Pit Señor!” Not everyone might have known the miracle—less remembered may be—but the devotion to the Sto. Niño, the Holy Child, remains the unifying reason why Cebuanos celebrate Sinulog such that it seems to be a royal tradition ever to be celebrated and lived by.
On the day of Sinulog, city roads are closed. Cars, buses, trucks, tricycles and other public vehicles are replaced with a long snaking crowd of dancers and drummers dressed in full-colored costumes. These costumes widely vary from the Spanish-inspired Filipiniana and baro’t saya to the native’s bahag and tapis. Headdresses can be crowns of flowers, embroidered bonnets, head-fitted pearl shapkas, or a crown of feathers arranged like a peacock’s tail. Some dancers wear elegant shoes, some slip on colorful flip-flops, and some dance along the city streets barefooted. Props differ from one contingent to another, respective of the specialty products of their provinces. There are dancers carrying baskets and bouquets of flowers, colorful hankies, umbrellas and fans, candles tied with ribbons, and palmeras. Others bring colorful brooms, bilao painted with flowers or letters from VIVA PIT SEÑOR, fish nets, bangka and paddles, bamboo poles and more other products of the Philippine provinces.
There is also a long parade of van and truck-driven floats featuring the livelihood of the provinces, the functions of government units and NGO’s, or the products of companies and industries. Local and national government officials, and local and international celebrities can be seen waving their hellos from the lavishly decorated floats.
From dawn to midnight, the swarm of people, locals and foreigners wearing Sinulog t-shirts, is endless. The day of Sinulog is, in fact, a traffic-free day because people walk the streets, cars left parked at home. It is customary that people visit the Basilica de Sto. Niño, the church where the miraculous statue of the Holy Child is safely housed. People light candles, some fly balloons, to go up alongside their prayers.
Once ready to hit the crazy streets, people hurry over to the small stalls where they get their arms tattooed, their hands, necks and ankles drawn with henna art, and their faces painted with colorful stripes. While others, who don’t have extra pennies, run to their dirty kitchen, grab a piece of charcoal to paint their faces black like “sinunog”. The blackening is inevitable anyway. Unless it is raining, no one escapes the torrid kiss of the tropical sun.
Even before midday, the Cebu Sports Complex is already jam-packed with a huge noisy crowd of spectators. People usually bring their lunch and dinner packs to the main event’s venue so to never lose their spaces amidst the busy swarm. One important reminder is to have mobile phones fully charged and loaded. And then pray for network signal. Forget about your mp3 playlist, or else, you miss more than half of the fun!
Once the main event’s hosts call for a start, the rest of the day is going to be an endless debate between the drums and the thunderous cheering of the crowd. Contingents run to the big stage, dance to the foot-stomping drumbeat, do their dramatized chants all with grace, sing their praises while giving birth to countless smiles. Somewhere in every dance performance, the huge audience sings with the performers, “Sinulog! HA! Mo-siyagit ug kusog, HA! Pit Señor! Pit Señor! Kitang tanan mag-saulog!” And the singing never stops.
And in every Sinulog dance performed by each and every contingent, it is almost automatic that people’s eyes find their way to the lead dancer, the one carrying the main character of the festival. Because Sinulog is not only about the fun from the dancing, the singing, or the colorful costumes and the deafening beat of the drums. The hearts of the devotees always search for the Holy Child, the Sto. Niño, amidst the busy dancing and the loud singing, amidst the graceful praise.
The day ends with fireworks bursting high up in the midnight sky alongside the booming of Sinulog songs in quadro speakers. But the singing goes on, the three words of the day remain: VIVA PIT SEÑOR!