Today, on the 3rd Sunday of January, the Church in the Philippines celebrates the Feast of Santo Niño, one of the most popular religious celebrations not only in Cebu City, but also in the entire archipelago.
Santo Niño and the Sinulog Festival
The image of Santo Niño is the oldest, the most popular, and, probably, the most venerated religious image in the Philippines. Although the devotion to the Holy Child of Jesus is strongest in Cebu, the statue or printed stamps of Santo Niño can be found in almost all Catholic homes across the country.
The original statue is small; just about 12 inches tall, made of dark wood by a Flemish artisan, and, perhaps, has the Infant of Prague as its counterpart. The image is dressed in crimson, the color of royalty, of the Roman legion, and of martyrdom. It is crowned like a king, and carries an orb and scepter or baston de mando (symbols of authority). The statue also wears metal boots like a soldier.
History of Santo Niño
According to historical accounts, the Holy Child Jesus was brought to the Philippines by the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was in the service of Charles V, the King of Spain. On his way to the Spice Islands (Moluccas), Magellan arrived in Cebu in April 1521. There he was greeted by the local chieftain, Rajah Humabon, and his wife Hara Amihan (referred often as Ratu Humanay), who prepared for him and his companions a very warm welcome. In turn, he persuaded them not only to pledge their allegiance to Spain, but also they were baptized into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos and Juana. He then gave the statue of Santo Niño to Queen Juana as a baptismal gift.
The eye-witness of that event, Antonio de Pigafetta, the chronicler of Magellan’s expeditions, wrote about what happened on April 14, 1521, in the following words: “After dinner the priest and some of the others went ashore to baptize the queen, who came with forty women. We conducted her to the platform and she was made to sit down upon a cushion… until the priest should be ready. She was shown an image of our Lady, a very beautiful wooden child Jesus, and a cross. Thereupon, she was overcome with contrition and asked baptism amid her tears. We named her “Johanna.” The priest, who baptized Hara Amihan, was Fr. Pedro Valderama, a chaplain on that expedition. On the same day, about 800 Cebuanos also received baptism. Later, “(the queen) asked us to give her the little child Jesus to keep in place of her idols.”
In gratitude to their hospitality, Magellan agreed to fight together with King Humabon who was at war with the neighboring tribe in Mactan Island, led by a Muslim Datu, Rajah Lapu-Lapu. Unfortunately, Magellan, along with 8 Spanish soldiers and 4 of Humabon’s warriors, was killed in the battle on the shores of Mactan on April 17, 1521. Later also, Duarte Barbosa and Juan Serrano, who took command after Magellan’s death, were poisoned and massacred along with their soldiers during a goodwill banquet hosted by Humabon. The remnants of Magellan’s expedition under Sebastian del Cano sailed homeward defeated but proving, for the first time, that the earth is round. There were 18 survivors out of the original 265 who returned to Spain over a year later.
For the next 44 years, there was no news about the statue of Santo Niño, until the second Spanish expedition, headed by Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, which arrived in Cebu on April 27, 1565.The expedition was accompanied by an Augustinian, Fr. Andres de Urdaneta and some other Augustinian and Franciscan friars. Because of the hostility and resistance of Cebuanos, who feared that the Spaniards will take revenge for Magellan’s death, a heavy battle broke out. As a result of that battle, the village ruled by Rajah Tupas (successor of Humabon) was burnt to the ground and the natives had to flee to the nearby mountain. On April 28, 1565, after the smoke cleared, a soldier named Juan Camus, a Basque, in one of the burning huts found a wooden box containing the image of the Santo Niño amongst several native idols. Miraculously, the statue was completely unscathed. “…a child Jesus like those of Flanders, in its pine cradle and its little loose shirt, such as come from those parts, and a little velvet hat, like those of Flanders – and all so well-preserved that only the little cross, which is generally upon the globe that he holds in his hands, was missing.”
According to the documents, found in the archives of the Santo Niño Convent in Cebu, Legaspi fell on his knees and kissed the image reverently. He took this as a sign that the heavens will bless the Spanish endeavor. There and then, “he ordered that this sacred image be placed with all reverence in the first church that should be founded and that the church be called “Nombre de Jesus” (Name of Jesus).” He also said: “Cebu shall henceforth be called the Sion of the Philippine Islands, and the divine influence of Christianity shall go forth from Cebu to every part of the archipelago, and across the seas to distant shores.”
The Augustinian friars that accompanied Legaspi in his expedition proclaimed the statue miraculous and built a church on the site where it was found. Actually, on this place the Spaniards built three times a church. The first two churches were made out of wood and nipa (palm leaves), but every time it was destroyed by fire. The construction of the present church was started in 1735 and completed in 1739. Originally, the church was called San Agustin Church, but later in 1965 it was given the title of “Basilica Minore del Santo Niño.”
During the World War II, a bomb fell inside the church, but the image again was found unscathed. It was one of the numberless miracles and powers attributed to the Holy Image.
Some Legends and Tales about the Image of Santo Niño
The origin of Santo Niño is composed mainly of three different stories. The most widespread version is that the image found by Legaspi’s men in 1565, is the same statue Magellan gave to Queen Juana in 1521.
The second version states that the image came from China. It supposedly found its way to the Philippines through Chinese traders who dealt with Franciscan missionaries.
The third version is the most interesting of all and it is rooted in the folklore of Cebu. It is told that one day, long time before coming of the Spaniards, a native went out into the sea to fish. He did not catch anything for the most part of the day. Suddenly, he felt a weight at the end of his net. He brought it in only to discover that it was nothing but a piece of wood. This occurred several times, until tired and angry; he decided to keep the stubborn piece of wood in his boat. And like magic, the situation changed and all the fish swum towards his boat and he went home with a bountiful catch.
The natives of Cebu soon discovered that this piece of wood had special magic powers. They could use it as a scarecrow to keep animals away from their dying crops. In times of drought, they only had to immerse it in the sea and the rains would come. Apparently, this same piece of wood was fashioned into the image of the Santo Niño.
The legend continues that long after the Spanish conquest, the King of Spain decided that the image of Santo Niño be brought to Spain as a proof of its conquest of the islands.
The image was placed in a locked box that was in turn placed in locked metal casket and heavily guarded when shipped to Spain. Imagine the consternation of the King when the boxes were opened in his presence but contained nothing inside!
The image which mysteriously disappeared from the box reappeared the following day on the altar of San Agustin Church in Cebu.
There were further attempts, but each time the image kept disappearing and reappearing in Cebu.
It is also told that when, in the days of Legaspi, the capital was moved from Cebu to Manila, the authorities decreed that the image of Santo Niño should also be moved to the new capital. So, the image was crated and shipped to Manila, but the crate arrived there empty. The image miraculously disappeared, reappearing in its shrine in Cebu. It was re-crated, and the crate placed inside another box, and then shipped to Manila. Again, the boxes arrived in Manila empty. The image was crated a third time, and the crate was placed not only in one but in two boxes – still in vain. The Santo Niño was back in Cebu.
Eventually, the shippers sent the image out in a series of Chinese boxes, one inside another, with the seventh and inner-most box containing the image. In this way, the image arrived in Manila and was enthroned in the Augustinian church of the capital city. The image, however, kept disappearing from the Augustinian church and reappearing in its shrine in Cebu. And so, it is told, the Manila Augustinians decided to cut off one of the Holy Child’s legs to stop it from escaping and returning to Cebu, but also this proved of no avail! The Santo Niño still kept on returning to Cebu.
Finally, Manila gave up and Cebu kept its little Lord. Today, it is said, one can still notice how unevenly the Santo Niño stands. It is a sign of how, at one time, it had been amputated to keep it from returning to its beloved home.
Some other stories came from the local helpers at the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, who had reported that, the Santo Niño sometimes disappeared from its glass case at night only to return with grass stains on its clothes or soil on the shoes, which the night before were perfectly cleaned by the parish women. This sparked speculations that the Santo Niño took long walks at night.
These are just some of many stories attributed to the miraculous image of Santo Niño being at the same time an expression of the devotion, beliefs and sometimes superstitions of the local people, who love the Santo Niño very much. Although, because of theological reasons, the Santo Niño is not the patron “saint” of Cebu anymore, many Cebuanos do not consider the Christmas Season over until the Feast of the Santo Niño.
The Feast of Santo Niño is celebrated in the Philippines every year on the third Sunday of January. On this day also, Cebu celebrates the Sinulog festival or rather its culmination. Actually, it is a nine-day fiesta in honor of Santo Niño, which finishes with the Sinulog Grand Parade on the last day. The day before the parade, takes place the Fluvial Procession, a water parade, held at the dawn from the Mandaue City to Cebu City with the Santo Niño carried on a pump boat decked with hundreds of flowers and candles. The procession ends at the Basilica where a re-enactment of the Christianizing of Cebu follows. In the afternoon, a more solemn procession takes place along the major streets of the city, which lasts for hours due to the large crowd participating in this religious event.
The festival commemorates the coming of the Santo Niño to Cebu and the conversion of the early Cebuanos from paganism to Christianity. The word “Sinulog” comes from the Cebuano adverb sulog which describes “water current movement”, thus the forward-backward movement of the Sinulog dance.
The festival is characterized by a very long parade with many groups of persons dressed in colorful costumes, finding their way through the streets while dancing the Sinulog. The dance is accompanied by the sound of the drums, trumpets and native gongs; all the time moving two steps forward followed by one step backward. Though the dance is already very old, the parade is rather young. 1980 was the first year that the parade was organized. The streets are usually lined with vendors and pedestrians all wanting to witness the street-dancing. Smaller versions of the festival are also held in various parts of the province and of the country as well, known as Ati-atihan Festival.
According to the historians, the Sinulog was already danced by the locals in honor of their wooden statues before the Cebuanos were baptized. It is said that at the moment of receiving the statue of Santo Niño, Queen Juana danced with joy bearing the image of the child Jesus, while the other natives followed her example. Undoubtedly, it was the first official Sinulog in honor of the Santo Niño, which later on became a part of the yearly fiesta. This event also is frequently used as basis for most Sinulog dances, which dramatize the coming of the Spaniards and the presentation of the Santo Niño to the Queen. A popular theme among Sinulog dances is Queen Juana holding the Santo Niño in her arms and using it to bless her people who are often afflicted by sickness caused by demons and other evil spirits.
While dancing, people shout petitions and thanksgivings to the Santo Niño. “Pit Señor! Señor Santo Niño, Manoy Kiloy…” Shouting is necessary because the pilgrims have to be sure that they will be heard by the Santo Niño.