If there is one country whose calendar of events is filled with festivals, it would be the Philippines. Music and dance has been a part of its culture filled with rituals from harvesting, planting, marriage, birth, and even death.
Witnessing these festivals is a great reason to fly to the Philippines. If you are to pick one event, join the festivities of the Ati-Atihan Festival known as the “ Mother of All Festivals”.
Philippines’ Mother Festival
This jovial event is held every third Sunday of January, in time for the feast of the Holy Child Jesus called, Santo Niño, in the sleepy town of Kalibo, just an hour away from the world famous Boracay Island.
Various activities are held from small street dancing, offering dancing for those with special intentions including couples and women asking for a child, to prayer vigils called novenas, contests and more. The highlight falls on the last day with the tribal competitions and street dancing.
The festival is believed to be 700 years old, with similar festivals from other cities in the Visayan region of the Philippines, all in tribute to the Holy Child, an important patron in a heavily dominated Catholic country like the Philippines.
Drumbeats, street dancing with a specific dance step they call, sad-sad and the tribal costumes. Unlike other merrymaking festivities in the world, Ati-Atihan still upholds the conservative way of enjoying a festivity – less flesh and still bears the religious aspect of the event.
In contrast to other festivals organized by bigger cities, Ati-Atihan is still not commercially fueled and remained more of a community event. Due to the small area, it has kept its simplicity and that makes this event more attractive to those who just want to join in the clean fun of street dancing.
The Making of a Festival
The word, Ati-Atihan means, “ to be like an Ati”. Atis or Aetas are one Philippines’ indigenous people. They have kinky hair, dark complexion, and short stature. This explains the unmistakable look among dancers and spectators during the event – painting their faces black or at least some face and body art.
The origin of the festival can be traced as a festival celebrated by the Atis during a good harvest filled with music and dance. When Malay chieftains arrived to find a new home after escaping a tyrant ruler in their homeland, they made a pact with the local Ati chief named Marikudo.
In exchange for the lowlands for the Malays to settle, he was given a golden hat or salakot and a golden necklace for his wife. The Ati chief agreed and they moved to the highlands, which many of them still remains up to this very day.
In celebration to this peaceful bargaining and barter also given the fact that it was a harvest season among the Ati, a party was held. Tuning in to their new friends and to join their merry making, the Malays painted their bodies with soot to appear like Ati. Thus, the word, “ Ati-Atihan” came to be.
Religion plays a big part of the present-day Ati-Atihan when in fact, the very first people who held the festival were pagans. How did it come to be? When the Spaniard came to the Philippines, they used religion to conquer, converting pagans and Islam believers to Christianity.
The town of Kalibo where Ati-Atihan festival happens also means, “ one thousand” in reference to the number of Christian converts. Taking cue on how important the festival is to the natives, the Spaniards hosted the same festival but now it includes the Holy Child Jesus.
This explains how devotees still embrace Ati-Atihan festival, carrying images and statues of saints and the Holy Child. The devotees also dance to the Ati-Atihan hoping to get answers for their respective petitions.
Enjoying Ati-Atihan Festival
After some ceremonies, the crowd looks forward to the Tribal Competitions, participated by local schools in the area. From the beating drums to inducing dance steps, must-see are the costumes of these tribe “ warriors” of gaudy headdresses and soot body paintings. After the competition, the small town center becomes a big dance floor where everyone can dance, a chance even for strangers to have decent fun over dance and drumbeats.
It is unlikely not to join the fun for you don’t have to be obnoxious, people of all ages dance their wishes and fun at the Ati-Atihan Festival. Likewise, it is not impossible not to be dragged to the streets by the crowd – no spectators allowed. In short, the whole town becomes one dancing community.
Before leaving your hotel, paint some black on your face and get a headpiece and you are ready to go! No paint? No worries, no one is excepted to have a bare face thus, do not be alarmed if one random stranger suddenly slides a brush of color on your face.
Ati-Atihan is less rowdy compared to other festivals that even kids can join. If you are really adamant in bringing your kids, the town has organized an event of dancing and music just for kids, similar to the religious dancing.
It goes without saying that the festival causes high rates especially among hotels. Book ahead to get savings, especially that during the festival, hotels require at least 3-nights of stay per booking. As a small town, there are fewer hotels in Kalibo.
With soot covering and body painting as part of the festival, skip wearing white or any light color. Opt for an older shirt made of cotton for ventilation. As a tropical country, bring face towel and water with you.
Though it cannot be escaped, be wary of drunken tourists along the streets. Still, when compared to other major festivals in the Philippines, Kalibo is way safer and more traditional.
Get a glimpse of Philippines’ world of festivities starting with the one that pioneered these cheerful events – the Ati-Atihan festival. Smaller than other major festivals and the locals are as friendly as the rest of the country, making Ati-Atihan perfect even for first-time visitors.