A tale of two festivities: Fiesta Señor’s solemnity and Sinulog’s unrivaled energy

What I expected to be a fun yet tiring work trip for Sinulog turned into something more humbling and spiritual.

Most people think that Sinulog comprises all the religious and cultural events that take place mid-January in Cebu. However, there are actually two distinct festivities. 

First is the religious Fiesta Señor, spearheaded by the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño de Cebu. While the festival commemorates the evangelization of the natives by Augustinian missionaries back in 1565, some of its practices predate the year of evangelization; the natives have been performing rituals and dances dedicated to the Child Jesus after Ferdinand Magellan conducted the first baptism on the island on April 14, 1521. The image of the Child Jesus was part of Magellan’s gifts to Rajah Humabon and Queen Humamay, then the king and queen of Cebu, after their christening. 

Then, there’s Sinulog, which is more cultural and secular in nature, but still rooted in the worship of the Sto. Niño. Derived from “sulog,” the Cebuano word for river or ocean current, the Sinulog Festival is much, much younger—the first parade was held in 1980, organized by David Odilao, known in Cebu as the “Father of Sinulog.” The early festivities were inspired by the dance steps performed by devotees of the Child Jesus; once it was taken to the streets, it evolved into the grand merrymaking that we know today. 

A vendor dresses up a figure of the Sto. Niño. Both the Fiesta Señor and Sinulog are rooted in the image of the Child Jesus.

Fiesta Señor and Sinulog take place concurrently, and some of their major events coincide on certain dates. The official schedule posted by the Sinulog Foundation this year lists the Fiesta Señor’s biggest processions and masses alongside this year’s official fiesta day, grand parade, and parties at the park, among others. 

Admittedly, I am more familiar with Sinulog than the Fiesta Señor. When I went to Cebu last weekend, I was more eager to immerse myself in the vibrant parties and parades. 

However, as I reflected on the complete experience that we had—from waking up early to observe the mañanita Mass to dancing with the locals on grand fiesta day—I found that there’s a case to be made for experiencing the best of both worlds, even if you’re not the most devout person.  

The power of communion

Devotees congregate in front of the pavilion of Magellan’s Cross at Plaza Sugbo.

Not even the sweltering noontime heat and scorching sunlight prevented a huge crowd from forming in Plaza Sugbo. Throngs of devotees were waiting for the solemn foot procession of the venerable image of Señor Sto. Niño to begin at one in the afternoon. Some were crowding at the entrance of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño—I heard from a few attendees that some devotees had arrived early in the morning to line up—while others were taking refuge under tents, Cebu City Hall, and nearby establishments. 

A sizable crowd gathered around the pavilion of Magellan’s Cross, a wooden structure planted by Magellan and his fleet upon their arrival in Cebu. The cross was surrounded by several unlit candles thrown inside by devotees after saying their prayers. Several vendors roamed the plaza to sell candles; at certain times, some of them were performing dances and uttering prayers in front of the basilica. Other devotees, Sto. Niño on hand, were waving their images while singing songs of praise. 

Candles from devotees, representing their prayers and intentions, surround Magellan’s Cross.

I stood in front of the pavilion of Magellan’s Cross to inspect the murals inside and take a few photos. Within earshot, I vaguely discerned some of the prayers of the faithful: good health for oneself and the family, protection from disasters, financial abundance, and gratitude for blessings last year, among others. 

The most powerful moment of that afternoon—aside from the unforgiving heat—was the collective chant of the community: Viva pit senyor! (Long live the Christ Child!). It was resounding yet solemn, powerful yet unimposing. We weren’t able to experience the whole foot procession because of work meetings, but we saw the beginnings of a huge crowd that eventually grew to over 1.1 million devotees, according to local Cebu media. The image of the Sto. Niño traversed Cebu City’s streets for over three hours before returning to the basilica past four in the afternoon. 

The candle vendors at the Fiesta Señor utter their prayers in front of the basilica. Some of them were also leading a few dances and chants in the plaza.

As we drove away from Plaza Sugbo, the chants of the crowd continued reverberating in my head. However, it did not hold a candle to what I was going to experience the morning after. 

At around four in the morning on January 21—the grand day for both Fiesta Señor and Sinulog—Plaza Sugbo and its surrounding streets were filled with even more devotees, all flocking toward the basilica for the mañanita mass. Traffic got even worse, turning what was usually a 10-minute drive into an almost 45-minute ordeal. With vehicles on a standstill, other people decided to walk instead, traversing several blocks and weaving through traffic just to get a good spot within the plaza. 

Amid the solemnity of the early morning mass were a few eye-catching sights: devotees with their best-dressed Sto. Niño figures, families with children (and pets!) dressed as the Child Jesus, feathered headdresses, and colorful Sinulog-themed shirts. 

Plaza Sugbo was overflowing with devotees attending the mañanita Mass.

However, the most striking scene that morning happened toward the end of the Mass, when the crowd sang in unison while waving their hands and Sto. Niño figures in worship and veneration. As we were standing near the plaza entrance, we had a panoramic view of the religious spectacle. I glanced at the people around me and saw them focused in prayer, their eyes closed while singing the hymns and mouthing their prayers. 

I couldn’t discern what they were praying for this time around, though I figured I didn’t need to; even if you’re not the most devout person, when you’re faced with such a display of devotion, all you can do (or ought to do) is to stay silent, respect others’ solemnities, and reflect on your own intentions. 

A redefined Sinulog

From the mañanita Mass, we traveled to the South Road Properties (SRP) at the break of dawn. When we arrived, we saw the organizers busy with last-minute checks on the program, venue, sound systems, and logistics. 

The crowds poured in as the sun rose higher, building up the energy and excitement for the upcoming performances. 17 competing contingents—eight for the Sinulog-based category, and nine for the free interpretation performances—and four guest groups were lined up to perform for the day, with the competitive performers dancing it out for a cash prize of P3 million per category. 

The First Lady of Cebu, Malou Rama, performs an intermission number at Sinulog sa Sugbo.
The crowds lining up the streets toward SRP, waiting for the floats to pass by.
The floats at the Sinulog Grand Parade. Photo from Sinulog Foundation Inc.

Seeing the series of performances at SRP, we got a full picture of the commemoration of the baptism and arrival of the Child Jesus on our islands many centuries ago. The solemn Fiesta Señor made us feel the spiritual dimension of the event, while the festive dances showcased the most creative interpretations of the historic scene. 

While festive music and infectious cheer filled the SRP grounds, what was notably absent were the things that I had known Sinulog for: the street parties and drinking sprees. Just like last year, Mayor Mike Rama did not give the green light to hold such revelries within the SRP grounds and its streets, encouraging attendees instead to “enjoy Sinulog spiritually, socially, and [with] fun.” The Cebu City government reiterated, however, that the liquor ban was only limited to public spaces; the indoor areas of hotels, resorts, restaurants, and other tourism-oriented establishments were spared from the directive. 

While I had my spiritual realizations from the mañanita Mass and solemn processions, of course I wanted to get something to drink—hence, on the night of the grand fiesta, we drove to downtown Cebu City and searched for a good place to unwind, drink, and celebrate a weekend’s worth of work in Sinulog. 

Uptown Cebu, far from the festival grounds at SRP, was bustling with activity.

Growing up, I saw and heard of Sinulog as a festival where people get wild and energetic on the streets, where they come in wearing white shirts and smiles and leave the festival grounds with tons of color on their faces and garments. I didn’t get to realize that childhood image of the festival. 

However, I didn’t mind that I wasn’t able to get my face soiled with festive colors in Cebu. If anything, I was more grateful that I got to experience the humbling solemnity of the Fiesta Señor, especially since I flew to Cebu with thoughts about the recent Feast of the Black Nazarene in mind, where devotees flock to Quiapo and arm themselves with their faith, prayers, and willpower to tough it out in a crowd, just to touch or get a glimpse of the Black Nazarene. 

I’ve never had the heart nor the devotion to visit or participate in the feast—suffice to say, I’m not the most devout of Filipino Catholics. And admittedly, if you’re just looking at the Feast of the Black Nazarene through a screen, it’s quite easy to pass judgment toward a sea of strangers subjecting themselves to voluntary suffering. And for what? In my mind, stories of injuries are just as rampant as testimonies of miracles; frankly, it’s easier to collect evidence for the former. Judgment’s temptation often overpowers me in these situations.

Being in communion with the devotees of the Sto. Niño in Cebu made me realize that there isn’t any place for me to judge one’s display of devotion and veneration. 

I can’t exactly say that I’m a convert now, but something has definitely changed with how I look at Sinulog.

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