C: M Edwards / Pixabay

The Philippines’ version of the Mardi Gras – the celebration of the Santo Niño

When Ferdinand Magellan’s galleons sailed into Cebu harbour in the central Philippines in 1521, having sailed from Spain many months earlier, all seemed promisingly hopeful. Soon after arriving, he presented a native chieftain and his chief consort with several mementos of Christian significance – as a reward for their having converted to the novel faith. Things however, were to turn a tad sour in the coming weeks, because when Magellan and his forces returned and attacked some other native tribes, they met strong resistance. The lightly-clad natives easily overcame the heavily-armoured Spanish troops in the shallow waters of Cebu harbour; Magellan was killed, and the rest is history.

But what were the gifts originally presented by Magellan to the chieftain? One is of lasting significance – the Santo Niño (the holy child). It is a foot high statue, for all the world like the child of Prague, created by Flemish craftsmen, complete with an imperial crown, and the boots of a military general – hardly the most appropriate image of the peace-preaching, humble Jesus.

Rather unfortunately, in my opinion, was the practice in Spanish times, of according the statue certain military honours: it was known as the “Captain-General of the Spanish forces in the Philippines”, for goodness’ sake! The dubious practice continues and now the statue is entitled the “Captain-General of the Armed Forces” – Forces with a very tainted recent history indeed. And the Navy didn’t want to miss out either, so they have the statue called the “Lord Admiral of the Sea”. Further shenanigans regarding the statue are connected to the practice of changing the colour of its cape: the most ludicrous being the use of green to symbolise the American dollar, the greenback. Many shops have the green-caped statue prominently displayed; hardly consonant with the Lord’s words “you cannot be my disciple unless you renounce all your possession” (Luke 14:33)!

In 1565, the Spaniards launched another attack on Cebu, burning many homes, killing many natives; but astoundingly, the Santo Niño survived the inferno, as it was enclosed in a protective box. Its survival was seen as supernaturally inspired, and so began the miraculous aura surrounding the statue; and it persists to this day. Devotion to the Santo Niño is extremely strong in Cebu (the second city of the Philippines), where the original statue is kept in bullet-proof surroundings, and very seldom seen in public. (Interestingly, the statue was transferred to our monastery during World War 2, because the church where it was normally kept was in the downtown area, and therefore at greater risk, whereas our monastery at that time was quite distant from the centre, and was thus seen as a more secure sanctuary).

The weekly devotions to the Santo Niño are on Friday, when thousands of devotees flock to the church, attending hourly services which go on from early morning (5.30am) to late in the evening. The annual fiesta (feast) is in January, and has two parts, a religious and a civic celebration, held on different days.

The former begins with a fluvial parade (Filipinos have a liking for technical terms), commemorating the seaborne arrival of the first bearers of the faith, centuries earlier. The fluvial parade is followed by a solemn procession through the streets of Cebu, and culminates with a pontifical Mass at the shrine of the Santo Niño.

The following day, the third Sunday in January, is when the civic celebrations are held; these are collectively called the Sinulog. The word comes from “sulog”, which means “the current of a river”, because the standard dance step bears some resemblance to flowing water. Its origins, probably legendary, lie in the story of how the wife of the chieftain given the original statue by Magellan, broke spontaneously into dance to express her joy at seeing the image. The movement was unusual, two steps forward, one backwards, and is performed by every tribe each year. The word Sinulog may also be a slightly corrupted version of the verb saulog, which means “to celebrate”, and it certainly fits the atmosphere of the occasion.

At any rate, the central attraction is an hours-long procession of various “tribes” (i.e., groups from many of the towns and cities on the island of Cebu, as well as neighbouring islands), each one performing street dancing to celebrate the statue; therefore the statue is featured in each presentation. The various costumes are exquisite, the dancing and coordination are excellent (if a little repetitious, as they all follow the same stepping), the musical rhythm is maintained by a combination of brass instruments, xylophones and drums. Indeed the make-up of the dancers, mascara, eyeshadow and lipstick, would make a Hollywood socialite envious. Each tribe passes before a panel of judges, and then when all is over, prizes are awarded. The tribes will have practised for months, often with financial help from Filipinos living abroad. Gaining a prize at the Sinulog is seen as a great achievement, and brings glory and honour to the dancers, musicians, make-up artists and trainers – indeed to the neighbourhood as a whole.

The strangest part of the whole celebration (and, to my mind the most bizarre) is what is called the hubu: literally the “undressing”. This ceremony takes place on the Friday following the Sinulog, during which, according to an extremely strict order of procedure, the statue is divested of its accoutrements. Going from crown to the lesser parts of the attire, the statue is shorn of all externals and is actually washed. A piece of wood, solemnly washed: I mean, wood is wood, no matter how revered. This final sentiment of mine is probably the fruit of my too cynical view of life; maybe I should see in the washing of the statue an expression of the depth of the devotion that these people have to it and to the faith associated with it. And I suspect that the pronoun I have chosen is also incorrect: not devotion to “it”, but to “Him”.


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