Story and photos by Jun N. Aguirre
KALIBO, Aklan—Every January, Filipinos all over the world celebrate the Ati-atihan Festival, which is primarily devoted to the Santo Niño, or Child Jesus.
But unknown to the millennial or younger generation, the history of the Ati-atihan is steeped in faith and Filipino culture.
In 1975 Catholic priest Msgrs. Jose Iturralde wrote the history of the Ati-atihan could be traced to the old fishermen couple in Barangay Naile in the western part of the province.
Iturralde said that in the early-1700s, an unnamed male fisherman went into the river to catch fish. But along the way, he considered it unfortunate that he caught a piece of wood, instead of fish. He tried to throw the wood away, but it repeatedly returned to his net. Dismayed, he decided to bring the wood home and threw it in a pile to use as fuel to cook their meal. The fisherman with his wife sleeps for a while and later they heard a beating sound nearby. When they look where the sound beatings where, they found the piece of wood has carving of a child.
The fishermen then decided to place it in their altar. From there on, the family received blessings, including good fish harvests. Several weeks passed, and the fisherman decided to seek advice from a priest.
The priest asked the fishermen to place the wood at the Ibajay Parish. Several days later, the residents wondered why the piece of wood always disappeared and was repeatedly found at the roof of the fisherman’s house.
The Ibajay residents interpreted the incident as a call for them to seek forgiveness of their sins. Part of their penance was for the residents to blacken their faces with coal and to dress in rags. After doing this, the piece of wood no longer left the parish.
One day, a group of Spaniards known as the Moros from nearby Mindoro province tried to invade the town of Ibajay. The residents fought back, dedicating their victory to the piece of wood.
Until now, the symbolic fight between the natives against the Spaniards is being commemorated as part of the Ibajay Ati-atihan Festival.
In 1798 Padre Fernando de Legaspi, based in the town of Malinao, heard about the yearly celebration being held in Ibajay. He walked several kilometers to Ibajay town as there was no transport made at that time. Upon witnessing the revelry, he decided to duplicate the revelry in Malinao town. In 1800, when he was assigned in the town of Kalibo, he also duplicated the Kalibo Ati-atihan Festival there.
On June 11, 1871, a testament was signed by the Kalibo priest with businessmen in town to institutionalize the holding of the annual Kalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival.
Among those businessmen who signed the testament were Jose Gomez, Basilio Gomez and Pedro Fuentes. The testament was legalized by Ramon Barrios, who was the gobernadorcillo of Kalibo during that time. Witnessing were Jose Isturis and Lucas de la Concepcion.
During those times, the revelry was held every noon as a sign of penance while holding dancing in the streets.
The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) named the Kalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival as “The Mother of Philippine Festivals.” It was through the Kalibo Ati-atihan Festival that inspired the origin of the Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo, the Sinulog Festival in Cebu, among others.
In the 1970s then-President Ferdinand Marcos mandated the Department of Education to help promote the Kalibo Ati-atihan Festival every January.
Another legend connected to the history of the Kalibo Ati-atihan was when 10 Bornean datus sailed to Aklan to escape the dictatorship of their ruler. They accidentally landed in Panay Island where they were greeted by the friendly residents, the Aytas.
The 10 Bornean datus reportedly bought the entire Panay Island from the Aytas with gold jewelry. This legend was, however, officially declared a myth by the NCCA.
A highlight of the Ati-atihan Festival is the annual holding of the Higante Contest.
Thousands of devotees also narrate their miracles taking place while attending the Kalibo Ati-atihan Festival.
The Kalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival was named one of the 300 best festivals in the world for 2017 by two global digital festival discovery communities, the F300 and EverFest.
Other travel web sites also named the Kalibo Ati-atihan as one of the greatest street parties in the world. In 2016 the Kalibo Santo Niño Ati-atihan Festival Inc. introduced neon lights color among the competing tribes to enter a new era of colorful revelry.