Sinulog Festival is a cultural, historical, and religious festival held in honor of the Sto. Niño de Cebu in Cebu City, Cebu, Philippines every third Sunday of January. Officially named Sinulog-Santo Niño Festival, it is considered one of the grandest and largest festivals in the country that attract a crowd of over a million people annually.
Often described as the link between history of Cebu’s Catholicism and its pre-Hispanic past, it is the biggest festival in the island of Cebu.
History of Sinulog Festival
Sinulog Festival comes from the word sulog which means current of the river. Sinulog, roughly translated to move like a river, is noted as dance rituals found in central parts of the Philippines.
The word itself and consequently the Sinulog dance has a long, colorful story according to experts. The dance-ritual may have been a pre-Christian performance that was accommodated into the Roman Catholic fiesta in honor of the Sto. Niño de Cebu.
The history of Sto. Niño de Cebu began when Ferdinand Magellan gave the image of the Holy Child to Hara Humamay (later renamed Queen Juana), the wife of Rajah Humabon (later renamed Don Carlos) who was the chieftain of Cebu, in 1521.
According to Antonio Pigafetta:
The queen, after making a bow to the altar, sat upon a cushion of embroidered silk, and the captain sprinkled over her and over some of her ladies rose water and musk, a perfume which pleases the ladies of this country very much. The captain on that occasion approved of the gift which I had made to the queen of the image of the Infant Jesus, and recommended her to put it in the place of her idols, because it was a remembrancer of the Son of God. She promised to do all this, and to keep it with much care.Antonio Pigafetta, translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley. The First Voyage Round the World/Pigafetta’s Account of Magellan’s Voyage
Magellan would be slain by Lapulapu in what is known as Battle of Mactan, and it is commemorated annually in Lapu-Lapu City in a yearly re-enactment called Kadaugan sa Mactan. Only a remnant of his expedition continued the return trip to Europe in what was the first circumnavigation of the Earth.
The image of Sto. Niño was recovered by Juan Camus, a Spanish colonizer who was part of the expedition of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi on April 28, 1565.
The historic Sto. Niño de Cebu was canonically crowned on April 28, 1965 by virtue of of the Papal Bull “Cunabula Religionis” issued by Pope St. Paul VI on February 27, 1964. The Basilica and the image are declared National Cultural Treasures by the Philippine government in 2021.
January feast day
While the discovery of the image was in April, the feast day is celebrated every January. This was a change introduced by Pope Innocent XIII. The move ensured Sinulog festivities happen outside of the Easter season. A separate feast called Kaplag (meaning Discovery), which commemorates the day when the image was found by Juan Camus, is held in April annually.
Sinulog dance is the basis of the general choreography employed by street dancers and candle vendors in the Basilica, and the latter is said to contain remnants of the dance rituals of the past.
Early versions of the Sinulog dance were documented by historians as different from its contemporary form particularly the ones that appear in the festival’s street dance competition.
Previously, devotees danced in front of the image within the premises of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, believed to be the site where the Image was found and where it is enshrined. The practice was stopped in 1980s, and devotees offered their dance-rituals outside the Basilica.
Its simplest, modern form involves two steps forward followed by a step backward in a manner that is said to mimic the water flow of a river.
It is accompanied by drumbeats and punctuated with shouts such as, “Viva Pit Señor!” (Hail Lord, listen to our prayers!), “Viva Señor Santo Niño!” (Hail, Lord Holy Child!), “Pit Senyor kang Mama kini, Pit Senyor kang Papa kini!” (Google translation: Pit Senyor this is for mom, Pit Senyor this is for dad.) Dancers carry and weave around handkerchiefs, candles, and statues of the Holy Child.
Sinulog Festival in Cebu City
The birth of the modern Sinulog Festival is attributed to David Odilao Jr., the regional head of then Ministry of Sports and Youth Development, on January 19, 1980. The initiative, supported by the Cebu City government under Florentino Solon, was prompted by the thrust of the government to promote tourism in the regions and provinces of the country through representations of Filipino identity.
Odilao is also the founder of Kadaugan sa Mactan.
The first Sinulog dancers were two hundred students from seven schools in Cebu, namely Cebu Doctor’s University, Cebu Institute of Technology, Southwestern University, University of Cebu, University of San Carlos, University of San Jose-Recoletos, and University of Southern Philippines. They were taught by Estelita Diola, the keeper of the Sinulog dance that mimicked the water flow in Cebu Pahina river.
Initially, they performed around the premises of the Basilica. The festival took on a grander scale and conducted in multiple locations around metropolitan Cebu in the following years. Its secular organization was managed by Cebu City Historical Committee and then to Sinulog Foundation Inc., while religious activities are managed by the Augustinian congregation in the Basilica.
In 2021 and 2022, Sinulog Festival was held except for events that would invite crowds, with activities made available for viewing online, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sinulog Religious Activities
Devotion to Sto. Niño de Cebu is expressed in the observance of religious services that mostly occur in Basilica. Below are some of the major church events.
Fluvial procession happens in the morning of Saturday, the day after all novena prayers are said, when the image is brought from Lapu-lapu City back to the Basilica via the Mactan Channel. It is accompanied with participating vessels from the businesses, coast guard, corporations, organizations, and others.
Hubo Mass is celebrated days after the conclusion of the festival. It is a ritual where the image changes accessories, clothes, and accoutrement to a new set of attire.
Novena and mass
Novena prayers followed by Holy Mass occur daily for nine days prior to the feast day. It is also the official start of the festival. Devotees visit the Basilica to attend the religious services.
Reenactment of the Baptism of Queen Juana and Rajah Humabon
Reenactment of the baptism of Queen Juana and Rajah Humabon is performed after the fluvial procession and held in the Basilica. It remembers the historical event in 1521 when Rajah Humabon and his wife received the sacrament of baptism.
Traslacion is a solemn journey of the image of the Sto. Niño from the Basilica to the National Shrine of Saint Joseph the Worker in Mandaue City. It is conducted right after the Walk with Mary. The next day, the image will embark on a journey from Mandaue to National Shrine of Virgen de Regla in Lapu Lapu City.
Walk with Jesus
Walk with Jesus, also called Penitential Walk with Jesus, happens on the first day of the novena. It is a procession that is scheduled in the early hours of the morning and culminates in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
Walk with Mary
Walk with Mary, also called Penitential Walk with Mary, falls on the last day of the novena. It is a procession from Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe de Cebu to the Basilica.
Sinulog Festival Schedule of Activities
Activities and events in Sinulog Festival are organized by religious, government, and private entities. They include booths, cultural and variety shows, competitions, contests, entertainment, exhibits, fireworks, parades, street parties, trade fairs, and other revelries.
Balik Baroto Regatta
Balik Barotto Regatta is a competition of traditional sailboats that was established in 2020. It is a relay race of two boats and four fishermen representing different towns and cities of Cebu. The event was conceptualized as a reminder especially to the young people of the maritime navigation of old and to encourage the use of more environmentally sound mode of transportation at sea.
A select number of competitions are open. Most notable ones are in the categories of music, music video, performing arts, photography, short films, and video documentation.
HuNiño or Huni Halad Alang Kang Santo Niño de Cebu is a songwriting competition. Started in 2007 and organized by the Augustinian community, it handpicks songs that are composed in honor of Holy Child. A finals night is held at the Santo Nino Pilgrim Center to select the winner and runners-up. Finalist songs are used in liturgical ceremonies in the Basilica, included in an album, and sold in CD format and music book. Proceeds of the sales are donated to Basilica del Santo Niño Children’s Welfare Foundation, Inc.
Miss Cebu was a pageant in search for an exceptional Cebuana who can promote Cebu to the rest of the world. It used to be held during the schedule of Sinulog Festival and was called Miss Cebu Tourism when it was first established in 1984 until it was renamed in 2000. Starting 2017 however, the contest was once again renamed Binibining Cebu and moved to October under a new organizing group.
Sinulog Festival Queen
Sinulog Festival Queen is a contest that selects the best female lead dancer that exhibits faith and grace. It was established in 2017, the year Miss Cebu was rebranded and deferred to a later schedule in the year.
Sinulog Idol is a singing contest. It was established by Cebu City Government, Center for Pop Music Philippines, Sinulog Foundation Inc., and Soundtraxx Productions Studio. Its first championship was held in 2010.
Sinulog Grand Parade
Sinulog Grand Parade is one of the highlights of the entire festival. It features floats, foot parade, and street dancing. It is also where the contest of dance contingents is judged apart from the final presentation and showdown. Contingents can participate in two categories, Sinulog-based and free interpretation. Ritual showdown champions and a street dance champion are declared along with special awards in costume and musicality.
Where to go
Majority of the fun and entertainment, events, parties, and other activities both religious and secular occur in Cebu City and other neighboring locations. Venues include the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, Cebu City Sports Complex, South Road Properties, and major thoroughfares of the city.
How to reach Cebu City
Devotees, tourists, and visitors can reach Cebu via air, land, and sea. International and domestic flights are scheduled daily in Mactan International Airport in Lapu-Lapu City. Sea trips in various ports connect from different points of the country. Land trips that involve bus and ferry are also available.
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