What Is the Sinulog Philippine Festival?

by John Cagney Nash

The Sinulog Festival is a major celebration in the Philippines that honors the Santo Nino -- the Christ child -- and commemorates the Filipinos' conversion to Christianity. Although there are smaller versions of the festival held in various other locations, Sinulog is almost universally identified with Cebu City. Pilgrims from all over the Philippines have long been making an annual pilgrimage to the Cebu Basilica to celebrate the Christianizing of their ancestors.

Sinulog Origins

In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan and his invading forces planted a cross on the shores of Cebu, in what is now known as the Philippines, to demonstrate their claiming of the territory for Spain. Magellan gave a statue of the Santo Nino to Hara Amihan -- later to become Queen Juana -- as a baptismal gift for leading the first Filipinos to be Christianized. She is said to have danced with joy upon receipt of this idol; her entourage copied her, and the first Sinulog was performed. Forty-four years later another force of Spanish invaders located the abandoned statue in the remains of a native home they had just set to torch. Friars with them determined that the idol was able to perform miracles and began building San Agustin Church on the site of the destroyed home. The church was later renamed Basilica Minore del Santo Nino, and it is in this building that the more holy activities of Sinulog take place.

Modern Sinulog Festival

In 1980 the Cebu City government organized the first formal Sinulog Festival and parade. Initially under the auspices of the Ministry of Sports, the second event was hastily turned over to the more appropriate City Historical Committee. The Sinulog Festival is held in Cebu City every year on the third Sunday of January, honoring Jesus in his child incarnation. This embodiment was the patron saint of Cebu until the Catholic Church determined that Jesus could not be a saint, as he is God. Central to the festival are ritualized dances that depict and re-create the conversion of the Cebuano people from pagans to Roman Catholics.

Street Procession

An important aspect of the celebration is the street procession; it takes place on the feast day, the last -- ninth -- day of the festival. Immediately before the parade a Pontifical Mass is celebrated at the Basilica del Santo Nino; the Cardinal conducts the Mass, assisted by local bishops. The attendees then flood out onto the streets and the parade begins. Participants, wearing brightly-colored costumes, move through the street dancing to drums, trumpets and native gongs.

Fluvial Procession

The Fluvial Procession takes place one day before the Grand Parade. The procession is led by a Santo Nino idol carried on a pump boat, and traces a route from Mandaue City to the Basilica in Cebu City. The idol, the float and the route are all decorated with flowers and candles, and the ceremony at the Basilica re-enacts the conversion of the heathen Filipinos.

Sinulog Dancing

Dance is intrinsic to the festival: The word "Sinulog" is drawn from the Cebuano adverb "sulog," which means "like water current movement" and refers to the two-steps forward, one-step backward back-and-forth movement of traditional Sinulog dancing. Most dances dramatize some aspect of the Spaniards' arrival and the presentation of the idol to the queen, and candle vendors at the Basilica perform a version of the dance when lighting customers' candles.

Festival Queen

The Sinulog Foundation runs an annual competition to choose a Festival Queen, the Sinulog's best lead dancer. Between the ages of 16 and 24 and chosen from all the Dance Maidens, she is supposed to resemble the almost deified Queen Juana. Blending traditional dance with individual creativity, her movements must be graceful and rhythmic, and she must be able to draw flawless performances from her dance troupe. She must be charming, elegant and confident. And single. Yet only 35 percent of the judges' points are given for beauty and body proportions; the competition -- held in the Cebu City Sports Complex -- also involves a comprehensive 30-second oration and a dance performance that can last a maximum of two minutes.

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