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Devotees call for revival of Philippine festival tradition

Conservatives in Panay say many young people do not know what the Ati-Atihan celebration is about anymore

Jun N. Aguirre, Kalibo

Jun N. Aguirre, Kalibo

Published: January 16, 2019 07:47 AM GMT

Updated: January 16, 2019 07:50 AM GMT

Devotees call for revival of Philippine festival tradition

Children participate in Ati-Atihan street dancing in honor of the Child Jesus in the Philippine province of Aklan. (Photo by Jun N. Aguirre) 

Devotees in the central Philippine town of Kalibo are calling for the revival of the traditional observance of their festival to honor the Child Jesus.

Father Jose Tudd Belandres said his parishioners miss the "good old days" of the Ati-Atihan festival in Aklan province.

The festival, a celebration traditionally held every third Sunday of January, is highlighted by dances and merrymaking in honor of the Santo Nino.

The term "Ati-Atihan" means to be like an Ati, the tribal people of Panay Island in the central Philippines. 

Father Belandres of the St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Kalibo said people, especially the young, do not seem to know what the celebration is all about anymore.

The festival has become known as the "Mother of Philippine Festivals" because of the music and colorful street dancing.

This year, at least 34 groups, representing tribal people and "modern groups," are participating in a street-dancing contest to be held on Jan. 19.

"We are calling for the revival of tradition," said Father Belandres, adding that among the things the people miss was the playing of old songs, including "Happy Days Are Here Again

The priest also called for the synchronized playing of drums and lyres.

During Ati-Atihan, revelers cover their faces with soot and wear bright costumes to resemble the "Ati," the original inhabitants of Panay. 

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Tourists and devotees, sometimes holding an image of the Child Jesus in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, dance in the streets to the beat of drums.

The pre-Christian Ati-Atihan supposedly was a celebration of how 10 Bornean tribal leaders and their families escaped a despotic ruler in Borneo during the 13th century to settle on Panay Island. 

The Borneans had to trade their goods with the natives known as Atis to be able to peacefully live on the island. The Borneans supposedly painted their faces with soot to symbolize their camaraderie with the dark-skinned Atis.

When Christianity arrived in the Philippines, the image of the Child Jesus was introduced in the celebration, which was supposed to mark the conversion of the Ati people to the Christian faith.

Through the years, the Ati-Atihan became a mix of the traditional and the modern wherein some people dress up as Superman or Batman.

Unlike other festivals that honor the Child Jesus in other parts of the country, the Ati-Atihan is open to all. There are no spectators and performers, everyone can mingle amid the frenzy of the celebration.

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