Sinulog’s origins: Tracing the roots of Cebu’s iconic festival

Wenilyn Sabalo

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Sinulog’s origins: Tracing the roots of Cebu’s iconic festival

HISTORY. A photo of page 14 of the January 16, 1931 issue of the now-defunct Bag-ong Kusog.

courtesy of Cebuano Studies Center, University of San Carlos

Amid the debates about which Cebu town or city started the Sinulog, an official said they see the annual celebration not as a competition with other Sinulog festivities but as a sincere tribute to the Holy Child Jesus

CEBU, Philippines – The northern town of Carmen in Cebu province wrapped up its 51st Sinulog sa Carmen celebration on Sunday, January 28, a week after Cebu City had the Sinulog Grand Parade and Ritual Showdown at the South Road Properties (SRP).

Amid the debates about which Cebu town or city started the Sinulog, a Carmen town official said they see the annual celebration not as a competition with other Sinulog festivities but as a sincere tribute to the Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus).

A priest at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu, citing a century-old newspaper, said the word “Sinulog” was first used to refer to the feast of the Holy Child Jesus before it was established as an official cultural event or festival.

Celebrating, Person, People
DRENCH. Residents of Cebu City’s Barangay Pasil drench themselves with water, a long-standing tradition they’ve upheld for many years as part of their celebration of the Fiesta Señor, on January 20, 2024.

Typically, a fiesta is primarily a religious celebration focused on masses and merrymaking activities rather than an organized festival with competitions. 

Sinulog sa Carmen

Carmen tourism officer Tobias Maximino Villamor said on Saturday, January 27, that the town’s Sinulog Festival, celebrated annually in Carmen since 1974, predates the David Odilao Jr.-led Sinulog in Cebu City that began in the 1980s.

He said the town still has two original festival dancers who can attest to its origins.

“Nag-una lang mi gamay sa pag sayaw-sayaw ingon ana, but for the Fiesta Señor, sila (Cebu City) gyud ang nag-una,” he said.

(We just came ahead in terms of the dancing, but for the Fiesta Señor, it was really in Cebu City where it began.)

“Bisan pila pa na ka image (No matter how many images there are) they are the same child Jesus,” he added.

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He said the Sinulog in Carmen began in 1973 as Ati-Atihan (a festival from Aklan province) introduced by Father Jose Motus, the parish priest at that time. 

It was renamed Sinulog a year after, during the tenure of then-mayor Virginio “Benyong” Villamor. From celebrating it on the third Sunday of January, the town moved it to the fourth Sunday of January.

Villamor said the town celebrates its own Sinulog because it has the old Santo Niño image which was discovered in Luyang, a coastal settlement engaged in pre-Hispanic trading between local and Chinese merchants.

A folktale has it that the image, now owned by the entire Luyang community, was discovered by a fisherman many years ago. 

Although Carmen has been actively celebrating the Sinulog for several years alongside performers from neighboring towns, Villamor said, it garnered significant attention only in the previous year. During that time, various groups from different parts of the province opted to participate in the Sinulog sa Carmen instead of joining the Sinulog Festival organized at the SRP in Cebu City.

Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia withdrew the contingents of Cebu province from the Cebu City-organized Sinulog Festival last year. She cited the unpreparedness of the SRP to host the event, pointing out that the asphalt work in the area had not been completed even days before the scheduled event.

Sinulog in Cebu City

Meanwhile, the Sinulog in Cebu City started with the idea of holding an activity that would show the city’s religious and festive side. This is in honor of the image of Señor Santo Niño at the Basilica, which Ferdinand Magellan gifted to Queen Juana, wife of Rajah Humabon, on her baptism in 1521.

A January 15, 2015 article published in SunStar Cebu entitled “Sinulog started with PE students, says Odilao,” showed that when the first Sinulog in the city started in 1980, “physical education students from eight universities and colleges in Cebu first served as dancers.”

In that interview, Odilao, considered the Father of Sinulog in Cebu City, said they depended only on government support back then.

OCEAN OF DEVOTION. Catholic devotees join the ‘Walk with Jesus’ or the penitential foot procession from Fuente Osmeña to the Basilica Minore del Sto Niño, on January 11, 2024. officially kicking off the 459th Fiesta Señor celebration in Cebu.

When he was moved to Surigao, Odilao said he shared the concept with the Cebu City government during the administration of former mayor Florentino Solon.

However, before handing over the Sinulog to Cebu City, Odilao asked Solon to establish a foundation for the event.

Odilao said that with a foundation overseeing the Sinulog, he guaranteed that its legacy would continue, and it did, with the latest Sinulog sa Sugbo Philippines 2024.

Sinulog at the Basilica

Father Genesis Labana, one of the priests at the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino de Cebu, said that based on a 1931 article in the Cebuano-language publication Bag-ong Kusog, the fiesta was already called “Sinulog” even before this term was officially used to refer to the organized festival.

“Which means Sinulog was once a religious activity but somehow lost its religious nature with the addition of commercialization like mga artista (celebrities) and floats and higantes (giant figures). However, we cannot deny that its formalization and commercialization also paved the way to its popularity,” he added.

Labana pointed out that the first Sinulog was purely an offering to the Santo Niño, without any competition.

He said Sinulog, a dance prayer, was also already being danced inside the Basilica even before a formalized Sinulog turned it into a cultural and commercial activity.

“Base pod sa mga interviews nako sa mga karaang volunteers dinhi sa Basilica, mga lay ministers, naa na g’yuy manayaw sa sulod sa Basilica,” he said.

(Based on my interviews with the old volunteers here in the Basilica, and the lay ministers, there were already people who danced inside the Basilica.)

This is documented in at least two articles found in the now-defunct periodical Bag-ong Kusog, which reported about the Sinulog feast. 

One report, Piyesta sa Senyor!-Andam sa Sinulog!, was published on page 14 of the periodical on January 16, 1931. Another, dated January 14, 1938, and entitled Ang Pangilin sa Senyor, narrates the festivities that happened during that year’s Fiesta Señor celebration.

“Human ipasunding sa kadalanan ang Senyor Santo Ninyo, himoan ang mga sinulog sa simbahan. Gikan sa gabii hangtud sa mga taknang halawom, makita pa ang mga tawo nga managsinulog sa balaan. Sa pagka-ingon ugma hangtud sa pagka-hapon, walay puas ang mga tawo nga managsayaw sa atubangan sa Bata nga Bathala,” reads a portion of the 1938 article.

(After the image of the Holy Child went on procession in the streets, a Sinulog was performed in the church. From night until the early morning hours, people can still be seen dancing in reverence. Devotees dance without ceasing in front of the Child Jesus from the dawn of the next day until the afternoon.)

SunStar Cebu was able to secure photos of the Bag-ong Kusog articles from the University of San Carlos’ Cebuano Studies Center last January 25.

Villamor said although the town had already celebrated the fiesta before it had its first festival in 1973, he could not recall when the annual fiesta in Carmen started.

Meanwhile, in Cebu City, the Fiesta Señor celebration led by the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino de Cebu is now in its 459th year. –

Wenilyn Sabalo is a community journalist currently affiliated with SunStar Cebu and is an Aries Rufo Journalism fellow of Rappler for 2023-2024.

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