Ati-Atihan: The Only Festival to see in the Philippines

January 10th-19th 2014

The exotic celebrations of native Philippines Festival Ati-Atihan seem unusual at first glance: celebrants cover their face with black soot and wear elaborately decorated costumes, but they are some of the mot interesting celebrations in Asia. This Ati-Athan festival is similar to Mardi Gras that is celebrated in other countries with just as much flair and extravagance, but lesser known. Ati-Atihan is a mixture of both traditional Filipino celebrations and Catholic holidays. The modern festival honors the infant Jesus, and a week of celebration known as Santo Niño takes place in the third week of January on Panay Island. The week is filled with parades, dancing and loud drumming.

Many tourists arrive from different parts of the country to attend the festival. But in recent years it has become very popular with overseas travelers. As such, accommodation tends to book out quickly, and many revelers resort to sleeping on the beaches. Plan your accommodation for the festival well in advance, particularly for the period surrounding the parade. Organizing transport to the islands inn advance is also required. Boats are the only way to attend many of the festivals, and tickets sell out quickly. Prices are also greatly inflated just before the event, especially for travelers who are desperate to make it to the event.

The culmination of events is over a 3 day period of parades the 9 day festival of music, dance and drama. The 3-day parade organized in the Philippines’s street in honor of the “Santo Nino” includes spectacular dancers in colorful costumes that march to a rhythm of traditional Filipino music. Ati-Atihan is celebrated all across the country of Philippines but with a unique flair in local regions. For example, Iloilo people also honor Santo Niño during the Dinagyang Festival that seems to have some pagan features. There are various other festivals that resemble this main Filipino Festival, such as Cebu’s Sinulog, Binirayan and Handugan Festivals of Antique that rival its popularity and liveliness. Attendees wear costumes in bright colors, decorated in animal bones and feathered headdresses.

The Ati-Atihan Filipino Festival first originated in Kalibo, Philippines but quickly spread to other provinces. The festival originated in 1212 AD following the arrival of members of the Datus tribe to the island of Panay. The new tribe nicknamed the darker skinned, curly haired natives of the island “Ati” or “Negritos”. The race indigenous to the island looked strikingly different to their paler invaders. The Datus purchased the land from the reigning king of the Ati, “Marikudo”, for a very low price and celebrated the bargain with a feast. The festival was borne out of celebration at a well-struck business deal. Relations between the tribes were amicable and mutually beeficial. The Datus tribe helped the natives during a poor harvest after the land changed hands and the Ati tribe could not cultivate the less arable land they now lived on. In thanks for the help they receved, they danced and sang for the Datus tribe. This became a yearly tradition of celebrating the friendship and the Datus honored the Ai by mimicking their appearance: Ati-Atihan literally means “making pretence of being an Ati”.

The Spaniards later settled in the area and the Catholics who joined the fiesta asked the Ati leaders, as well as the immigrants if they could honor Santo Niño at the fiesta. Today, the parade is a mixture of people dancing to drum music, or to sounds of metal and stone clinking from bottles. The dancing is continuous and everyone all festival participants blacken their faces with soot as a ritual of making believe that everyone is an Ati.