January in the Philippines has been dedicated by the Vatican to be that special month to celebrate the feast of the most revered Catholic image of the Holy Child Jesus or most known locally as the Sto. Niño. All over the Philippines the feast of the Sto. Niño is celebrated almost every week of January wherein the most notable among these festivals are the Sinulog Festival of Cebu, Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo, and the Ati-Atihan Festival of Kalibo.
The great following to the image started from the arrival of the first image of the Sto. Niño brought by explorer, Ferdinand Magellan. This was first given as a gift to Queen Juana, the pagan queen of Cebu during that time, when they were baptized to the Catholic faith. But Magellan died later on and the Sto. Niño was left to become a pagan idol by the local tribes. It was only after 44 years when Miguel Lopez de Legaspi arrived and revived the image as a Catholic symbol.
From then on, the patronage to the Sto. Niño spread throughout the archipelago and through the years the image has changed forms. And now there are hundreds of different forms of the image depending upon their followers. And today, the image maybe seen on altars of most Catholic homes, business establishments, and vehicles.
On the last Sunday of January, it is time for the annual procession of the Sto. Niño held along Manila Bay. My aunt’s family regularly join this procession and this year, it was our first time to join them. And so we drove to Manila along Roxas Boulevard and parked at the Baywalk near the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the Manila Yatch Club. At around 2pm we were there and there were already a lot of people starting to flock the area. At about 3pm they started to close the southbound traffic of the boulevard in preparation for the procession.
And along the boulevard people setup small tables by the sidewalk and line up their own images. Big and small, antiques to new images. There were groups that clothe their images with same colored dresses.
When the procession started, I climbed up on top of our van to have a good view of the parade. And in every group that joined the procession, one or more floats of the image pass by. Each float is adorned by flowers and each contains a group of Sto. Niño images. And each Sto. Niño is different from others. There is one for the Mariners, another for Policemen, a replica of the Sto. Niño de Prague, another is Chinese looking, and a horde of others more. The followers of each group also carry their own Sto. Niño images as they walk along with the procession.
Also each group is led by either a marching band or by a troupe of street dancers wearing colorful outfits of feathers and either wearing black inner outfit or painted their whole body with charcoal just like it was done traditionally. These street dancers mimic the tribes that idolized the Sto. Niño. These dancers are called the Ati-Atihan and they dance in the rythm of drums. Some of them carry the image as they dance and shake the Sto. Niño just like what is done during the Sinulog of Cebu.
As each group pass, the crowd along the boulevard shout ‘Viva Sto. Niño!‘ to give as praise and they are responded by the organizers of each float by throwing candies to them. Candies have become traditionally part of these celebration as the image of the Sto. Niño symbolizes the simplicity and innocence of children. And so aside from throwing candies to the crowd, some people who joined walking the procession would hand candies to kids and even leave candies at the foot of Sto. Niño images lined along the street.
It was a very long procession. This year there were 178 group of floats that joined the parade and the whole procession took about 5 hours to finish. And the parade started at the corner of Gil Puyat street up to the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park which is about 3 kilometers long passing the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Rajah Sulayman Park, the American Embassy and the Rizal Monument.
And like every year, the last float contains the image of St. Joseph and then the image of Our Lady of Manaoag.