The Sinulog Mardi Gras: Lost in Translation

This is a multimedia post Speak of Cebu and images of the Sto. Niño , the province’s patron, come to mind. And so does the valiant Lapu-Lapu, sweet mangoes, the famous lechon, guitars and beaches. But it is more than that. Cebu is a special and beautiful place. It is also my home.

This is the last of a series on the Sto. Niño de Cebu

The Sinulog Mardi Gras in Cebu is considered one of the biggest and grandest festival in the month of January. It is one of three that is marked with street dancing in honor of the Holy Child that occurs in the Visayas, the other two are the Ati-atihan of Kalibo, Aklan which is celebrated on the same day with the Sinulog, and the Dinagyang of Iloilo.

A dancer putting on finishing touches during a lull.

A dancer putting on finishing touches during a lull in the dancing.

The street dancing that we know of today had it’s beginnings with the traditional sinulog, a prayer dance that was offered to the Sto. Niño during it’s feast day every 3rd Sunday of January. What was then a small celebration within the vicinity of the Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño, was hijacked by provincial officials and expanded to become a major tourist event in Cebu in the early 80s. From that time to the present, the religious significance of this mardi gras is lost, except for the icon of the Holy Child that is now reduced as a prop for the dancing.

A pair of dancers before the start of the Sinulog.

A pair of dancers before the start of the Sinulog.

If you are seeking enlightenment or ponder the significance of faith, you can’t find it in the streets of Cebu City during this day. Instead, it is a very highly commercialized ritual sacrificing children, teens and adults to pound and sashay on the scorching streets on a very long parade route just to win a lump sum of money.

But all is not lost. The Sinulog mardi gras is something to enjoy for it’s color and creativity. Nevermind if the costumes are more the product of the imagination than for authenticity. It’s a time to party, mingle, dance on the streets and have an excuse to fly to the province and drink till morning.

Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications. He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces. I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.


  1. Hail to the Child King! Viva! Pit Señor Santo Niño! | langyaw
    February 8, 2009 @ 17:12

    […] This is a common sight at the Basilica as pilgrims from all over come and venerate the image, considered the oldest in the Philippines, in supplication for a favor or as thanx for a blessing received. It’s also an opportunity to witness face to face what the real sinulog is. Accounts say that this prayer dance goes to pre-Spanish Philippines and legends abound regarding how it started. Whatever the case may be, the sinulog has always been observed by the Sto. Niño’s faithful before it was hijacked by the local government and transformed into a big commercial festival. […]

  2. Sidney
    February 8, 2009 @ 21:40


  3. em
    February 8, 2009 @ 23:31

    Galing!!! May kainan ba after the parade?

  4. estan
    February 9, 2009 @ 0:06

    definitely, may kainan yan since it’s really very tiring 🙂

  5. Gennaro
    February 10, 2009 @ 1:07

    Beautiful photographs. There are quite a few Mardi Gras happening in the coming months. This seems to be a very interesting one. Next week is in Venice, Italy then later in New Orleans. Brazil too. It’s a fun time to celebrate heritage.

  6. Jen
    February 10, 2009 @ 4:31

    Do you use all of your own photographs for your site? There really are some incredibly beautiful ones here! Really enjoyed this article and hope to make time to read some more this week! x

  7. estan
    February 10, 2009 @ 5:08

    Gennaro, yes, there are many mardi gras happening especially just before Ash Wednesday, the start of Catholicism’s Lenten season.

    Jen, yep, I took all the photos here 🙂

    Thanx guys.

  8. Lantaw
    February 10, 2009 @ 12:15

    The first image says it all!

    I guess festivals and traditions all over our country become more and commercialized every year.

    Please visit my alter ego 🙂

  9. dong ho
    February 10, 2009 @ 13:39

    thanks for sharing those photos because i was supposed to attend this year’s sinulog but missed it because of a seminar scheduled on the same date.

  10. The Islander
    February 12, 2009 @ 17:55

    missed being here…
    missed the sinulog this year.

  11. dyosa
    February 14, 2009 @ 2:30

    Truly wonderful photos! You’ve really captured the festive atmosphere of Sinulog. I love the soundtrack too! 🙂

  12. estan
    February 27, 2009 @ 13:36

    @lantaw, i guess, it’s the way for most bevy of festivals in the country. its typically in the guise of a religious or cultural event with the main purpose lost in the pageantry of costumes and garbs.

    @dong, @islander, I surely am not missing this event. Probably since what I see every year is just the similar steps and groups offering the same spectacle. it’s the costumes that are varying from time to time.

    @dyosa, thanx 🙂

  13. 7 interesting churches in Cebu, a visita iglesia | langyaw
    April 7, 2009 @ 8:35

    […] As early as dawn, devotees already pass by it’s hallowed grounds to pay homage to it’s famous icon. It’s deluged with tourists too and on Fridays and, especially in January, it is the focus of many pilgrimages across the country. It’s feast day is the basis, albeit it has lost it’s true meaning, for the annual Sinulog Festival. […]

  14. Langyaw in 2009 | langyaw
    December 31, 2009 @ 18:11

    […] devotion to the child, God and king, the Sto. Niño with it’s attendant festival, the Sinulog. There’s culture and heritage, food from various places like Bantayan to Carcar and including […]

  15. Coffee kills Mactan Airport scanner | langyaw
    January 14, 2010 @ 9:15

    […] the much awaited, grandest of all Cebu’s and one of the country’s biggest event, the Sinulog, departing passengers who have hand carried baggages at the Mactan International Airport, domestic […]

  16. » Sinulog? Ati-atihan? Or Dinagyang for 2012? | Langyaw: Sojourns and Off-the-Beaten Path Travels
    January 3, 2012 @ 7:45

    […] am I just having Sinulog fatigue, having covered it three times in a row a few years ago. Besides, the Sinulog Foundation is already […]

  17. » Cebu’s beloved Child, God and King | Langyaw: Sojourns and Off-the-Beaten Path Travels
    January 19, 2012 @ 20:24

    […] Across the country and in many Filipino communities abroad, the 3rd Sunday of January is especially marked with masses, dances and celebration. It is also the highlight of the country’s biggest street festival called the Sinulog. […]

  18. Earthquake damage at Sto. Nino Minor Basilica | Simbahan
    November 3, 2013 @ 12:38

    […] The Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino might be the most popular church in Cebu due to the devotion of many Catholics around the Philippines and the world to the Holy Child enshrined in this edifice. Every third Sunday of January, the number of people multiplies as it is the feast of the venerated icon and fiesta of Cebu City which is the Sinulog. […]

  19. Sinulog 2014 preparations in full swing » langyaw
    January 7, 2014 @ 14:14

    […] City is quite busy these days with Sinulog 2014 preparations in full swing. I happened to pass by Osmena Boulevard today and those big municipal […]

  20. The Dinagyang religious Sadsad for the Sto. Nino » langyaw
    February 3, 2014 @ 18:56

    […] drum and bugle corp was playing a familiar tune, that of the Sinulog beat in Cebu as Sto. Niño devotees massed, waved their hands and danced while chanting Viva Pit […]

  21. January festivals you should see in the Visayas - langyaw
    January 27, 2015 @ 18:41

    […] READ MORE: The Sinulog Mardi Gras: Lost in Translation […]

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