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 Philippines.
Short History of the Image of Santo Niño de Cebu
In April 1521, Ferdinand Magellan, in the service of Charles V of Spain, arrived in Cebu during his voyage to find a westward route to the Indies. He persuaded Rajah Humabon and his chief wife Humamay, to pledge their allegiance with Spain. They were later baptized into the Catholic faith, taking the Christian names Carlos (after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and Juana (after Joanna of Castile).
According to Antonio Pigafetta, Italian chronicler to the Spanish expedition, Ferdinand Magellan himself presented the Santo Niño to the newly baptized Queen Juana as a symbol of the alliance. To her husband Carlos, Magellan presented the bust of “Ecce Homo”, or the depiction of Christ before Pontius Pilate. He then presented an image of the Virgin Mary to the natives who were baptized after their rulers. Magellan died on April 27, 1521 in the Battle of Mactan, leaving the image behind. Legends say that after initial efforts by the natives to destroy it, the image was venerated as the animist creation deity Bathala. Many historians consider the facial structure of the statue made from Belgium, where Infant Jesus of Prague statues were also common.
In 1980, Filipino historian Nicomedes Márquez Joaquín wrote about the 44 years after Magellan’s soldiers left before the next Spanish expedition came under Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. Joaquín said that the statue was once denounced by natives as originally brought by Magellan, but was reinforced again by de Legaspi which the natives continued to dispute claiming that the statue came originally from their land.
On April 28, 1565, Spanish sailor Juan de Camus found the statue in a pine box amidst the ruins of a burnt house. The image, carved from wood and coated with paint, stood 30 centimeters tall, and wore a loose velvet garment, a gilded neck chain and a woolen red hood. A golden sphere, a replica of the world, was in the in the left hand, and the right hand is slightly raised in benediction. Camus presented the image to Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and the Augustinian priests; the natives refused to associate it with the gift of Magellan, claiming it had existed there since ancient times. Writer Dr. Resil Mojares wrote that the natives did so for fear that the Spaniards would demand it back. The natives’ version of the origin of the Santo Niño is in the Agipo (stump or driftwood) legend, which states that the statue was caught by a fisherman who chose to rid of it, only to have it returned with a plentiful harvest.
The statue was later taken out for procession, afterwards which Legaspi then ordered the creation of the Confraternity of the Santo Niño de Cebú, appointing Father Andres de Urdaneta as head superior. Legaspi instituted a fiesta to commemorate of the finding of the image, and although the original celebration still survives, Pope Innocent XIII moved the celebration to the Third Sunday of January to avoid conflict with Eastertide.
The Minor Basilica of Santo Niño (Spanish: Basilica Minore del Santo Niño) was built on the spot where the image was found by Juan de Camus. The parish was originally made out of bamboo and mangrove palm and claims to be the oldest parish in the Philippines. Pope Paul VI elevated its rank as Minor Basilica on its 400th year anniversary.
“Viva Pit Señor!” That’s what the people of Cebu City, Philippines, chant throughout the Sinulog Festival, held every third Sunday of January. It is the month when one of the grandest and most colorful festivals of the Philippines is celebrated. The Sinulog Festival is celebrated in honor of the Santo Niño, the Child Jesus, the Patron of Cebu and the Philippines and reminisces the time when Filipinos embraced Christianity in the 16th century. The word ‘Sinulog’ is from the Cebuano language adverb ‘sulog’. It means “the rippling of water or water current movement.” Its adaptation describes the forward-backward step movement of the Sinulog dance, performed by many during the Festival.
The actual historic event, which the Sinulog Festival commemorates, occurred on 7 April 1521, when Fernando de Magallanes, a Portuguese navigator, landed on Cebu Island in the central Philippines and claimed the area in the name of the King of Spain. Until this date the Philippines practiced indigenous, Asian, and Islamic religions. Magellan gave the Santo Niño wooden statue to Rajah Humabon’s wife, Hara Amihan, as a baptismal present. Rajah Humabon was Cebu’s ruler at that time. In honor of Carlos the First’s mother, Juana, Hara Amihan’s name was changed to Queen Juana. 800 natives together with their rulers were baptized into Christianity. Unfortunately, shortly after the conversion, Magellan went into reckless adventure by fighting the reigning ruler of Mactan Island, Rajah Lapulapu, with only a handful of men. He was killed in the encounter on 27 April 1521.
The remaining members of Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain to report the incident and the possibilities for conquest. It took 44 years before a new group came and began the conquest and formal Christianization of the islands. Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived in Cebu on 28 April 1565. His ships bombarded the native villages and inside one of the burning huts, a soldier named Juan Camus found a wooden box containing the Santo Niño statue.
Historians say that during the 44 years between the coming of Magellan and Legaspi, the natives continued to dance the Sinulog. This time however, they danced it no longer to worship their native idols but as a sign of reverence to the Santo Niño. The original intact Santo Niño statue is now enshrined at the San Agustin Church (renamed Basilica Minore del Santo Niño) in Cebu City.
The Sinulog originated with the original candle vendors who sell their wares in front of the Augustinian Church of Cebu. They were the first, a couple of hundred years ago, to do the forward-and-backward movement of the prayer-dance of petition and thanksgiving to the Santo Niño. The movement is said to imitate the sulog (flow) of Cebu City’s Pahina River. While dancing–waving their lighted candles–the women chant “Pit Señor! Pit Señor!” Many, even Cebuanos, don’t know what the chant means until told that “pit” is the abbreviation of the word “sangpit” – which is Cebuano for “to call the name of” and therefore “Pit Señor” means say “Hail, Lord!”
The participants in the Sinulog Festival wear bright-colored costumes and dance to the music made by trumpets, native gongs, and drums. The streets are full of people eager to witness the beauty of the festival and to pay homage to the Santo Niño. The Santo Niño Sinulog Festivals are also held in other parts of the Philippines and in other countries around the world.
Traditionally, the Sinulog Festival is celebrated for nine days. The ninth day culminates in the Sinulog Festival Grand Parade. A reenactment of the Christianizing of Cebu follows at the Basilica. A solemn procession is held in the afternoon along the city’s major streets. This usually lasts for hours due to multitudes of participants. A Pontifical Mass headed by the Cardinal is held at the Basilica. Bishops of Cebu assist in this event. Devotees and others populate the Basilica to attend the mass. Afterward, they all head out to the streets to witness the Sinulog Festival Grand Parade.
This is the event around which the Sinulog Festival revolves. The main theme of the Sinulog dance is Queen Juana, with the Santo Niño in her arms, blessing the people that are ill, poor, etc, and needing the healing of Santo Niño.
The Santo Niño Devotion is an important part of Filipino religious life and the Sinulog Festival is a time for joyful and colorful celebration. For a spectator on the street, it’s a beautiful scene to behold. But for participants doing street dancing, it’s a way to show their devotion to God. The Santo Niño Devotion is not a form of idolatry. The Child Jesus is one manifestation of Jesus, the Son of God, who died for us on the Cross, to save us and to offer us Eternal Life. Other forms of Devotion to Jesus Christ include the Sacred Heart, Devine Mercy, Holy Name, and Eucharistic Adoration.