Sinulog Festival – Cebu, Philippines

View Sinulog Festival 2013 schedule

In the Cebuano dialect, the word sulog, where Sinulog comes from, describes the motion of water. This flowing movement is mirrored in the Sinulog dance which characterizes the festival.

The central theme of the Sinulog festival is the child Jesus, more popularly known as the Santo Niño.

The festival is held annually to pay tribute to the Santo Niño, which most people consider as the patron saint of Cebu. Tourists, both local and foreign, flock to the city of Cebu every third Sunday of January to witness this one of a kind event. Streets are packed with viewers and performers alike, dancing to the blare of trumpets, the beating of drums and the sweet, melancholic sound of native metallic gongs. This celebration of dance is to signify the acceptance of the people of the Christian faith and the shedding of their pagan beliefs. While the main celebration is held in Cebu city, there are also smaller, similar festivities in the surrounding provinces. While smaller in scale, the mini festivities are just as impressive.

Sinulog dancers
Sinulog dancers wear colorful outfits. Photo by MaRiViC

The celebration of dance that ensues during the festival has evolved into a large-scale contest which is one of the main attractions for the tourists. The much awaited contest is held at the Cebu City Sports Complex to accommodate the large number of dance troops as well as the thousands of spectators, most of which came from a long way just to bear witness to the enchanting Sinulog dance.

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Apart from the dancing, another highlight of the event is the food to be had. Streets are peppered with food stalls and hawkers that entice you to sample their unique and indigenous wares. Not to be discounted are the numerous “Cebu lechon” stalls that the city is also famous for. Various trade fairs are also held during the festival to promote other quality export products from the city such as its world famous dried mangoes. The trade fairs also display indigenous goods that are not food such as hand-woven baskets and bags.

Although originally intended to be a festivity to enhance one’s religiousness, the Sinulog festival has transformed to one of the most awaited happenings in the country for several other reasons. Families are excited to witness the parades and spend quality time with each other while younger people save up to be able to come to Cebu because it is said that no night life in any other district could match the fervor and bliss that could be had in the city during Sinulog.

Little Santo Ninos
Little Santo Niños. Photo by Dee

If you are in the Philippines during the time of the festival it would be a crying shame to miss it. In fact, the festival itself is enough reason to come to Cebu and the Philippines in general. It is that good. To appreciate more the essence of the festival, a comprehensive walk through follows. It will take you on a ride starting with the history and origin of the festival to how it is being celebrated today. Several key events are also highlighted in order for you not take note of and not miss. Since there will be a lot of magnificent affairs, it would be advisable to make an itinerary or schedule for your stay in Cebu.


Cebu, which was known as Zubu before the colonization of the Philippines by Spain, was much alike the rest of the provinces in the country: an island inhabited by people with pagan beliefs who survived mainly by trading with nearby areas. Although the official patron saint of Cebu is the Lady of Guadalupe, most natives prefer to pay tribute to the Santo Niño. Research indicates that the first ever Santo Niño figure was requested by Ferdinand Magellan himself. The explorer hailing from Portugal presented the Santo Niño to wife of Rajah Jumabon, Cebu’s chieftain and figurehead at the time. The figure came to be regarded as a sign the conversion of the local pagans to Christianity and was also seen as a gesture of the Spaniards to extend friendship and camaraderie to the inhabitants of Cebu.

This iconic representation of friendship and religion was kept in the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño and San Nicholas de Tolentino Church, on open display for the public to view at their pleasure. To sustain the Cebuano’s’ devotion and dedication to the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño and San Nicholas de Tolentino Church, they came up with an annual festival which would prove to be one of the most colorful and extravagant celebrations that the entire country could be proud of.

Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino
Basilica Minore del Sto. Nino. Photo by Alisa

Being one of the first towns that the Spaniards converted to Christianity, Cebu had the privilege of experiencing the advantages and comforts of a civilized setting. The conversion also brought about a transformation of the city from a normal trading port to one of the primary religious centers of the country. Cebu boasts of its own Roman Catholic Archdiocese and numerous churches prominent in Philippines history. Aside from the two mentioned above (Basilica Minore del Santo Niño and San Nicholas de Tolentino Church), the city is also home to the following churches: Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, San Carlos Church, San Jose Recoletos Church, Sacred Heart Church and the Santo Rosario Parish Church.

Mary Sinulog
Religious nature of the Sinulog festival. Photo by Dee

Aside from these famous tourist destinations of a religious nature, landmarks such as Magellan’s Cross could also be found in the city. The massive cross is said to have been installed by Magellan himself upon his arrival on Cebu’s shores way back in 1521, yet another symbol of Cebu’s fast growth both in terms of religion and development as a city.


Sinulog started off as a way of the local population to adapt to the sudden change in their religion. The natives of Cebu danced to the beat of the drum and sung prayers to give thanks and bequest boons from the Child Jesus or Santo Niño. People making prayer requests shout their petitions and their own names in hopes of distinguishing their appeals and making the Santo Niño hear them. The rite is usually done on the Monday after the feast of Santo Niño.

Sinug Dancing

Sinug dancing or the art of the dance of Sinulog is no easy feat and requires years of practice under strict mentors. The dance ritual is meant to be a prayer and is performed in front of or in the presence of the Child Jesus or Santo Niño. It is believed that the motions and intonations of the chanting were derived from the previous practices of the pagans which were made to imitate the nature of water, whose Cebuano translation is sug. After many centuries, the Sinug dance is now synonymous to Sinulog and people refer to the dance and the festival using the same word. The dance most people are familiar with which they identify as Sinulog is similar to a Mardi gras dance step, stomping about and chanting while simultaneously bobbing a replica of the Santo Niño to the beat of the music.

Sinulog leap of faith
Sinulog Leap of Faith. Photo by MaRiViC

While several people say that the dance and the festival has been in place even before the arrival of Christianity to the country, historical research suggests that the Sinug dance originated from the apparition of the Santo Niño to Rajah Jumabon’s adviser, Baladhay. It was said that while Baladhay was suffering from a grievous illness and he was brought to a chapel to seek help. After a short while, Baladhay was heard shouting after awakening from a brief nap brought about by the exhaustion he was feeling due to the sickness. When asked what was wrong, he said that he was woken up by the Santo Niño. To add to the oddity of the situation, no one could explain why Baladhay was dancing, trying to mimic the motion of water. Thus is the root of the Sinulog dance being practiced today.

 Drummer Boy Sinulog
Sinulog street parade – drummer boy. Photo by Dondi Joseph

Fluvial Procession

Days before the grand celebration, the Santo Niño is paraded around to visit its “parents” located in various parishes scattered about the city. To mark this occasion, a fluvial procession is done and is a big event that loyal practitioners and devotees look forward to. They brave the intense heat and go with the Santo Niño in its journey and follow it until the whole ritual is over. The procession starts in the Basilica in Cebu city where the Santo Niño usually is housed and is transported to the Saint Joseph Parish in nearby Mandaue City. The icon is to stay there for a couple of days to spend some time with its foster father before the main event. During the Santo Niño’s stay in the church, people from far and near visit and perform vigils since it has been said that vigils and prayer requests done during this time have a higher probability of turning out well.

Fluvial Parade
Sinulog Fluvial Procession. Photo by Chester Lim

After the Saint Joseph Parish, the icon is brought out to one of the islands of Lapu-Lapu where it is supposedly visiting its mother. The Santo Niño is moved between locations early in the morning while placed in a glass case adorned with flowers and is brought ashore riding a galleon or huge boat to reenact the arrival of the Spaniards to the shores of the beaches of Cebu. The head galleon is followed by an assortment of smaller boats and accompanied by beating drums, blaring trumpets, loud horns and sirens, grand fireworks and the cries and petitions of the devotees riding the boats.

A recent addition to the procession has been the showering of flower petals from the sky by helicopters provided by the Mactan Air Base. The sight of the petals floating down and the melancholia brought about by the music and chanting are a spectacle that can be seen nowhere else and should be in everyone’s bucket list. The fluvial journey ends when the boats dock at the Cebu City Wharf. The icon is then transported back to its original home at the Basilica. The ceremony is concluded by the reenactment of the Christianization of the pagan residents of pre-Hispanic Cebu.

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The Final Procession and Parade

The journey of the icon back to the Basilica from the wharf is called the final procession and is attended by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the country. The attendees carry lighted candles and rosaries. The final procession is the responsibility of the local chapter of the order of the Augustinians. In this event, the candle vendors in the Basilica play a major role by performing the traditional Sinug dance and chanting age-old songs that have been forgotten by many but have been passed down carefully from generation to generation in several choice families. As they dance their way towards the final destination, they also lead the rosary in several languages and dialects which are answered in turn by the attendees. Upon reaching the Basilica, a pontifical mass is held with the Cardinal presiding over the rites.

The Cardinal is assisted by several high-ranking bishops from nearby areas. After the mass, the Sinug dance is again performed but this time by petitioners who are in dire need of answered prayers. Many will attest to the miracles that have resulted from the sinug dance while holding a candle in your hand. After the dancing everybody ends the night on a joyful note by watching the grand parade and having a good time.

The procession is a very significant part of the Sinulog festival. Many people can relate to the process and reignite their religious flames by reinforcing their faith and making them remember the importance of religion in their lives.

The Grand Parade

The main focus of the festival, the grand parade transforms the normal, humdrum streets of Cebu to alleys bursting with life and color. Vibrant sounds and delicious aromas will assault your senses and you will be hard-pressed to not let go and enjoy yourself. The parade has also become a venue to showcase several talents of the local population where they could win prestige as well as cash prizes. From floats to dance troops the parade has it all. And since it is several hours long, you can enjoy the view while munching on succulent local cuisine which is made available throughout the entire route of the parade.

sinulog float parade
Moments from the Sinulog float parade. Photo by Regel Zamora

The floats are the main attractions of the parade and entrants compete intensely to win the much coveted title of best float for the festival. Large trucks are decorated with garish colors and unique themes to portray the Sinulog in each entrant’s own way. It is not uncommon for floats to showboat famous actors and actresses from the country, much to the crowd’s delight. The stakes of the competition of the floats have also skyrocketed the past decades as it has also become a setting for big time commercial advertisements since hundreds of thousands of people flock to the festival just to witness the beautiful creations.

Another huge part of the parade are the street performances by the participating teams sporting dancers decked in the most vivid colors, executing tribal dance step that also entices the crowd to dance along with them. Men are dressed as Spanish soldiers in uniform coupled with the decorative headgear of the native warriors while women wear native floral dresses that accentuate their exotic beauty and allure. The dances follow the traditional Sinulog step which is two steps forward and one step back. The troops who display the best costume and most accurate choreography are crowned as the winners of the street performance contest.

Sinulog dancers men
Sinulog festival dancers. Photo by MaRiViC

Local baranggays also join in the fun by constructing giant reproduction of colorful people using paper mache. These huge props are called Higantes which literally translates to Giants in the English language. The characters portrayed in the form of these Higantes range from the traditional Spanish soldiers to modern day pop culture icons such as Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers. The Higante competition has risen to very high levels as the years passed and is now as much awaited as the famous floats. The walking enormous puppets are a delightful spectacle for viewers young and old.

Pageants and Other Contests

Various beauty pageants are also made to coincide with the Sinulog festival in hopes of capturing a much bigger audience. Most prominent of these pageants is the Miss Cebu pageant which presents to the entire world the renowned Cebuana beauty of the region’s women. While Filipinas have a reputation to be the most alluring and exotic in the world, Cebuanas are said to be the best of the Filipinas. Most foreigners eagerly await the coronation of the winners of the pageant every time they come for the Sinulog festival.

Sinulog Pageant Winner. Photo by Roy Chan

A recent competition started during the Sinulog festival is the Sinulog Idol. The singing competition patterned after the famous hit reality show, American Idol. The contest is a joint venture between the government of Cebu City, Sinulog Foundation Inc., Center for Pop Music Philippines and Soundtraxx Productions Studio. The competition is started a few days before the grand celebration so that the finale coincides with the main attraction of the festival. This new attraction proved to be a big hit proved by the increased number of both aspiring entrants and viewers alike.

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Sinulog Festival 2013 Schedule

Sinulog Festival 2013 opening day is January 10th (Thursday). Usually, the most interesting events start a few days before the Grand Parade.

January 18, 2013 (Friday)
4:00AM Walk with Mary (Area) Fuente Osmeña-Sto. Niño
9:00AM Solidarity Meeting
(All Competing Contingent/Floats/Higante/Puppeteers)
Cebu City Sports Center Gym
6:00PM Sinulog Dance Crew and Music fest Grand Finals, Cebu City Sports Center
7:30PM Sinulog Festival Queen 2013, Cebu City Sports Center
8:00PM Cebu Popular Music Festival, Cebu Coliseum
January 19, 2013 (Saturday)
6:00AM Fluvial Procession of the Miraculous Image of Sto. Niño
9:00AM Re-enactment of the Baptism of Queen Juana and Rajah Humabon Basilica del Sto.Niño
2:00PM Solemn Procession of the Miraculous Image of Sto. Niño
7:00PM Sinulog Fireworks Competition at SM City Cebu
7:00PM Street party at Fuente Osmeña and Plaza Independencia
8:00PM Kasadya Nite Mardi Gras at Ayala Center Cebu
9:00PM Music fest Grand Finals
January 20, 2013 (Sunday), Sinulog Grand Street Dance Parade
4:00AM Mañanita Mass at Basilica del Sto. Niño
6:00AM Pontifical Mass with His Eminence Ricardo J. Cardinal Vidal
9:00AM Sinulog Grand Parade Carousel
7:00PM Grand Finale and Grand Fireworks, Cebu City Sports Center
7:30PM Street Party Bands, Fuente Osmeña
January 21, 2013 (Monday)
1:00PM Awarding Ceremonies, Cebu City Sports Center
January 25, 2013 (Friday)
4:00AM HUBO Mass Ritual at Basilica del Sto. Niño
January 26, 2012 (Saturday)
1:00 PM Screening of Finalists Short Film/Video Documentary Contest
1:00 PM Sinulog 2013 Photo Contest Winners Exhibits
6:00PM Awarding Ceremonies Photo Contest and Video Documentary Contest at SM City Cebu

2 thoughts on “Sinulog Festival – Cebu, Philippines”

  1. Is January 21, 2013 a holiday in Cebu? I’m planning to go there on the 20th to witness the grand parade and on the 21st to renew my PRC license, but i’m quite doubtful if it is a holiday in Cebu on that day.

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