Ati-Atihan Festival

Ati-Atihan Festival is the annual cultural and religious festival in honor of Santo Niño in Kalibo, the capital of the province of Aklan in the Philippines, that is held every third Sunday of January.

When Bishop Gabriel Villaruz Reyes was appointed to the diocese, he recommended the local government to change the name of the annual fest to Kalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival and thus it is officially called Kalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also recognized it as the “mother of all Philippine native festivals” in 2006.

It is often described as the Filipino Mardi Gras with spectacles that resemble similar public celebrations that can be found in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Touted as the “mother of all Philippine festivals,” it is arguably the template from which festivals elsewhere in the country are conducted particularly its use of visually striking costumes, parade, and street dancing.

History of Ati-Atihan Festival

Ati-Atihan refers to “mimicking the Atis”. The Atis are the native, aboriginal inhabitants of the island of Panay before the coming of the Malays and the Spaniards.

Revelers wear body paints including blackening the face with soot and elaborate tribal costumes to achieve an appearance that looks like an Ati.

It is also assumed that sadsad, the dance movement during parades, is an imitation of the gestures of the natives.

In 2021 and 2022, activities were toned down in observance of minimum health protocols set by the government to address the coronavirus pandemic.

Activities were pre-recorded and live-streamed on various platforms. Major activities like sadsad street-dancing and food bazaar were cancelled to avoid forming of crowds.

Fiesta of Santo Niño and renaming to Ati-Atihan Festival

Oral tradition and written history give varying accounts for the beginning of the festival.

Consensus on its origin indicates that it was a pre-colonial celebration, and Spanish invaders transformed it in ways to fit to Roman Catholic fiesta as a means to control the population socially and politically. Thus it developed into a celebration in honor of Sto. Niño, one of the many in the country including Cebu’s Sinulog Festival and Iloilo’s Dinagyang Festival.

The devotion of Sto. Niño in the Philippines sprang in Cebu in 1565 when its image was discovered in miraculous circumstances by a Spanish sailor in Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s expedition, reportedly the same image that was given to Hara Humamay by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.

Within the term of Mayor Federico O. Icamena, the yearly Fiesta of Santo Niño was renamed Ati-Atihan Festival in 1972 and became a more highly visual and public spectacle, incorporating elements akin to that of Mardi Gras.

It gained national prominence by the performance of Kalibo contingents invited at the opening of Nayong Pilipino in Pasay City during Martial Law period. Much of the elements of the festival draw from its rich folkloric tradition and narratives.

Barter of Panay and oral tradition

It is said that the festival is a celebration that remembers how the native Atis supposedly peacefully ceded their lands.

In 1212, ten Malay chieftains, their families, and retinue escaped from Borneo where they had been under the despotic Sultan Makatunaw of Sriwijaya era

Upon setting foot in Panay island, they made contact with the Atis. They negotiated for the Atis to give up the lowlands in order to live in the mountains.

The Malays would then dwell in the lands that the Atis vacated. In exchange, the Malays gave a golden headpiece, a gold necklace, weapons, other items, and a share of the annual harvest from the sea.

When the deal was sealed, they had a feast that involved singing and dancing that is said to be the first Ati-Atihan.

The tale however differs in the particular detail of when the practice of blackface began.

One account stated that the Atis relocated to the uplands. Over time, they no longer attended the yearly commemoration of the barter, so the Malay settlers who continued the tradition started painting their faces black to remember them.

Or the Malays did have their skin darkened by soot on that very first feast in the spirit of celebration and communion with the natives.

The story of the barter of Panay originated from Maragtas, a book written by Pedro Alcantara Monteclaro who stated it was a compendium of legends and oral history. Historians said that its contents were from a work by Fr. Tomas Santaren first released in 1858.

The barter of Panay also forms the basis of Binirayan Festival of Antique.

Here are other accounts in the oral tradition of the fest.

Christianization of Kalibo. Another oral tradition stated that the settlement called Madyanos was renamed Kalibo which translates to “one thousand”.

The word Kalibo is said to be a reference to the number of natives who were baptized by Fr. Andres de Aguirre in 1569.

After the sacrament, Spanish colonizers and the new Christians began dancing in honor of Sto. Niño which was a precursor of the present-day festivities.

Ibajay couple. A story penned by Fr. Jose Iturralde in 1975 mentioned that the festival began in Ibajay.

A fisherman caught a log of wood which he tossed aside and then he went to sleep. Later, he and his wife woke up to a noise and discovered that the wood was carved in the likeness of the child.

They treated the image as sacred and later transferred it to the parish. The Holy Child kept disappearing from the church only to turn in the house of the couple.

The townsfolk began blackface to convince the Holy Child to stay permanently in the church.

It is said that Fr. Fernando de Legaspi witnessed the yearly festival in Ibajay in 1798, and he then brought it to the town of Malinao where he was assigned.

Then, he brought the tradition when he moved to Kalibo in 1800. The festival was formally established through a declaration signed by church authority and the business elite of Kalibo on June 11, 1871.

Blackface, sea attacks. An alternative explanation is offered by yet another lore.

Ibajay residents started the tradition of blackface after they fought and defended their village against Moro raiders. They did so to avoid detection from the invaders, and they thanked the Holy Child who helped defeat the enemies.

Ati-Atihan Festival Schedule of Activities

Ati-Atihan Festival is filled with cultural, historical, religious, and secular activities.


Organizers initiate various competitions in arts, costume-making, music, jingle-making, pet, and talent shows.

Exhibits, booths

Bazaars, booths, and exhibits are put up by organizers, showcasing features, guides, food, and other activities of the festival.

Miss Kalibo Ati-Atihan

Miss Kalibo Ati-Atihan is a beauty pageant. Winner is judged via a criterion of being the best representative of “beauty, faith, and unity.” It is open to residents and those who have relatives living in Kalibo, and only one contender can represent each barangay. Previous editions were called Mutya ag Lakan It Kalibo Ati-Atihan, which is a search competition for men and women.

Novena and Mass

Novena prayers are said and Holy Mass is heard at the St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Kalibo for each of the nine consecutive days leading up to the day of the festival.


Faith of devotees is partly centered in the miraculous Image of the Holy Child. Pahilot is a ritual that is performed in order to be cured of various illnesses. The image is kissed and rubbed in various parts of the body of the devotee that may require healing.


Panaad, which means vow or commitment, is the observance of expressions of religious beliefs and faith in Sto. Niño within the context of Ati-Atihan. This involves among other things returning home to Kalibo and participation in street dance. It is believed that the fulfillment of panaad will grant the devotee a year of good health, grace, forgiveness, and healing.


Sadsad, which means dance, is the dance performed in the street during the festival. Its steps and movements, together with the wearing of festival costumes, are said to imitate the gestures of the natives. It is interspersed with shouts of, “Hala bira!” (Go all out), “Puera pasma!” (Never get sick), and “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” (All Hail to Señor Santo Niño).

Where to go

Major activities occur in the heart of Kalibo including Pastrana Park and Magsaysay Park. Religious activities are conducted in St. John the Baptist Cathedral.

How to reach Kalibo, Aklan

Province of Aklan can be reached via air, land, and sea. Visitors can fly to Aklan in international and domestic flights in two airports, Godofredo P. Ramos Airport in Caticlan in the town of Malay and Kalibo International Airport in Andagao in Kalibo. One may also buy tickets for sea trips in three ports of Caticlan, Dumaguit, and New Washington. Moreover, buses ply routes from various points of Panay such as Iloilo City, Roxas City, and towns of San Jose, Antique, and Libertad.


Ati-Atihan Festival Summary

NameAti-Atihan Festival
CelebrationCulture, Religion
ChurchSt. John the Baptist Cathedral
Date3rd Sunday of January
Duration7 days
LocationKalibo, Aklan
Official NameKalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival
OrganizerMunicipality of Kalibo, St. John the Baptist Cathedral
PatronSto. Niño
ReligionRoman Catholic