Sinulog: A Dance, A Prayer, An Offering

Take two steps forward and a step back. Sway to the beat of the drum and the chanting of the people. It is the time for Cebu’s famous Sinulog Mardi Gras.




At its core, Sinulog is a prayer-dance performed to honor the Santo Niño (Holy Boy). The dance has its roots in faith and religion but it has long transcended creed and has become a hallmark of a true blue Cebuano regardless of belief. This humongous celebration in January turns the streets of Cebu into a cornucopia of colors, art, music, and people… like, a lot of people.




At one time, Sinulog grew into a massive commercial event with all the concerts, raves and drunken frenzies. Organizers have now been trying to pull the celebration back to its core while still hoping to reap some of its commercial success. This ambitious task of getting the best of both worlds – while admirable – proves to be herculean. While the recent move of banning street parties earned praise from the majority of the religious sector, it did not sit well with the younger populace. Nevertheless, Sinulog is definitely what’s happening in Cebu this January.






While Sinulog is a Catholic festivity, its origin is said to be rooted from a pagan and pantheistic tradition of recognizing divinity in everything. Stories tell us that a court jester named Baladjay performed the first to-ing and fro-ing dance in his glee after being cured from some mysterious illness. He began to sway like the sea current (sulog) and shout praises and thanks to whoever his God was. My devout mother told my young and naive self it was the Santo Niño who cured Baladjay but some people suggested that this is no more than another case of cultural appropriation that haunted every story of colonization. They further claimed that the early Cebuanos were pagans believing in deities ruling the trees, mountains and seas. If the stories about Baladjay were true, then he should be dancing in honor of some sea-dwelling god thus the rocking dance movement reminiscent of the ebbing of the tide.




But, this, for Cebuanos, has never been an issue. Wherever it might have come from, Sinulog has always been a dance to honor the Child Jesus. It is a dance that shows the true soul of a Cebuano: steadfast in faith, resilient in hardship, colorful in culture and fun in everything else.






Sinulog is literally a colorful festivity. The streets are flooded with painted merrymakers undulating along the rhythm of the drums. Cebuanos have this increasing obsession with body art and tattoos, which isn’t exactly surprising since we were once called “Pintados”.




History tells us that the early Spanish colonizers came to the Visayan Islands and were met by people with intricate body tattoos and piercings. The westerners then dubbed the islands of Cebu, Bohol, Negros and Leyte as “Las Islas de los Pintados”, the Islands of Painted People.




If it’s your first time to join the revelry in the streets, wear a shirt that you won’t mind throwing after. You will get painted on so be ready to get dirty. Dare to wear white and you’ll have a Jackson Pollock that stinks of paint, sweat and piss at the end of the day.

Why the obscene amount of colors? Well, Cebuanos are expressive people. Colors express emotions. Bright hues, which show happiness and joy, when paired with the dark ones create drama and tell stories. Colors tell stories and we love stories.






Contrary to what many youngsters thought, Sinulog is not a one-day event. While we enjoy the merriment, the drunken frenzy, the paint-scrubbing and piss-spraying ruckus, we have to always remember that Sinulog is a religious festival. I am not, in any way, a purist Catholic snob but I believe in respecting the culture from which the celebration originates. Not all of us may share the same faith but we are here to take part of the same celebration. Do remember that while the parties and street revelries may have made the festival fantastically wild, Sinulog is, at its core, a celebration of faith and thanksgiving and let it be it regardless of your belief, race and orientation. Having said this, I say I respect the decision of the government and the festival’s organizers to bring Sinulog back to its roots. And you should, too.




A novena is held in the worship grounds of the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño. Devotees flock to the Basilica every day of the Novena with their little Santo Niño statues, dance in fervent prayer saying their thanks and bend the knees in supplication.




The foot-skipping, head-bobbing and candle-waving rhythmic movement is more than just your regular dab, whip and nae nae dance steps. The chanting and the dance routine are earnest expressions of faith. Hands waving up in the air. Hips swaying with grace. Smiles as warm as the tropical air. And, the eyes gently shut in fervent prayer:

Pit Señor, kang Lolo kini.
Pit Señor, kang Lola kini. 
Pit Señor, kang Tatay kini. 
Pit Señor, kang Nanay kini.





Now, being sober can be the challenge to beat. It can be really fun. The streets will still be swamped with painted merrymakers. The city will still be reverberating with the beats of the drums and chanting of the people. You’ll still see your favorite celebrities. And, you will get to experience all these without a buzzing hangover the day after. Also, see you in class on Monday. 


Pit Señor!



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