January in the Philippines: Everything You Need to Know About the Festivals

Photo credit: Dinagyang 2016 – Eisen Jiao and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

January is a very important month in the Philippines. Three major cultural and religious festivals are hosted in three different locations of the country. They are Sinulog, Ati-Atihan, and Dinagyang. This article will explain the history, customs and importance of each of the three, including the dates on which they are held in 2017. To understand the Philippine culture, it is vital to understand these three pivotal festivals in their cultural and religious life.




The Sinulog-Santo Niño Festival is the first of the three festivals. Although the main parade takes place on 15 January 2017, the festival stretches over a period of two months, from 1 December 2016 to 31 January 2017. The day of the parade is, however, seen as the main and most important festival day and takes place annually on the third Sunday in January.

The festival is location specific and is always hosted in Cebu City. Kabankalan City, Maasin City, Balingasag Misamis Oriental, Cagayan de Oro City, Butuan City, and Southern Leyte also have versions of the festival, but none as large as that of Cebu.

Sinulog signifies the heart of the Santo Niño Catholic celebrations. Honor for the Senior Santo Niño, or the Child Jesus, is showed through dance and Sinulog has a very specific dance associated with it. According to the official website for Sinulog, “the dance moves to the sound of the drums and this resembles the current (sulog) of what was then known as Cebu’s Pahina River”.

Historians often say that Sinulog, which is of pagan origin, is the link between the country’s pagan past and its Christian present. This dance of fluidity is therefore truly symbolic. The dance takes a general pattern of two steps forward, one step backward, done to the beat of the traditional drums.

The grand street parade is a procession like few others on earth. It lasts the entire day and participants come from many different towns, cities and sometimes even other islands to participate. The spectator crowds fill the street to its maximum capacity and perch on balconies, statues and in trees to grab a glimpse of the parade. No one minds the heat or humidity as the traditional sounds of drums and gongs fill the air throughout the day.

The parade consists of spectacularly adored floats in all the colors of the rainbow, fantastical puppeteers and their expertly crafted puppets and, off course, the festival beauties and their dancers who perform the enchanting, flowing dance of Sinulog.

The Sinulog grand parade has grown into a tourist attraction and visitors come from far and wide to watch in wonderment, to spend their money at the festival stalls dotted through the city’s streets, and to join the heart-thumping party that is this day. Yet the Philippines never loose focus of the true nature of the festival and to them, it remains, and will remain, a way to honor their Santo Niño.




The Ati-Atihan Festival is often seen as the inspiration for Sinulog, as it also brings honor to the Santo Niño (Child Jesus). The main event also takes place on the third Sunday in January (this year on 15 January) and is hosted in the town and island of Kalibo, Aklan. In the Philippines, Ati-Atihan is known as the “Mother of all Phillippine festivals”, clearly stating its importance in the country’s culture.

The event can be traced back to the early Borneo settlers. The name Ati-Atihan means “to be like Atis” or “make believe Ati’s”. According to history books, Aetas, known colloquially as Ati, were the primary settlers of the islands.

According to Doon Po Sa Amin, the roots of the festival can be traced as early as the 13th century, when a group of Malay chieftains or Datus, settled in the Philippines. This particular group of Datus came from Borneo and was allowed by the tribes of Panay Island to settle in the Philippines. Interestingly, the festival started as a simple expression of gratitude to the Datus. But when the Spanish missionaries came, they added a Christian meaning to the festivities.

What is striking about Ati-Atihan, is that both believers and non-believers, or Christians and non-Christians, are invited and encouraged to celebrate and take part. Both therefore observe the festival and may be seen dancing and celebrating side by side no matter their religious persuasions. Those who do celebrate religiously believe that the Infant Jesus will protect them from illness and harm.

The grand parade is the main event. It has much the same atmosphere as a Mardi Gras. It starts with rhythmic drumbeats and people dance on the street as they chant “Hala Bira! Pwera Pasma!”. Participants in the parade dress in more traditional tribal wear of bright colors and with interesting, colorful face paint. They dance traditional tribal dances to the appropriate, often infectious, music and their costumes are often accompanied by indigenous weapons.

Once again, this festival attracts tourists from far and wide who want to share in the energy, joy and excitement of the festivities.




It is said that Ati-Atihan also inspired the Dinagyang Festival, another a religious and cultural festival of the Philippines. Unlike the former two, Dinagyang is held on the fourth weekend of January, which will be 20-22 January this year, a week after Sinulog and Ati-Atihan Festival. Dinagyang takes place in Iloilo City.

While Dinagyang is similar to the two other festivals in the sense that it honors Santo Nino, it has another level of celebration not found in the other festivals. Dinagyang also celebrates the arrival of the Malay settlers on Panay and the subsequent selling of the island to them by the Atis.

Dinagyang is a local term for reveling or merrymaking and the entire weekend is devoted to this. Apart from a series of smaller events held throughout the month, there are three major events happening on the weekend. They are the Ati Tribe Competition, which is the main event taking place on the Sunday, the Kasadyahan Cultural Competition, held on the Saturday, and the Miss Iloilo Dinagyang.

The Kasadyahan Cultural Competition is also often referred to as the Street Dance competition. The competition takes place between the different tribes and is a highlight for the young people in the area.

The main part of the festival is the Ati Tribe Competition where participants show off their best warrior dances. These dances are characterized by dancers holding a traditional spear in the one hand and a shield in the other and imitating the dances of the tribal warriors through history. This is not an individual dance competition, but rather a tribal one, where groups dance together. The dancing goes hand in hand with chanting and drumming.

Naturally, this festival is yet another Philippine treat and an indulgent and flavorful way to get to know the culture and its strong historical roots. Even if you don’t have a reason to visit the Philippines and experience one of these three festivals, simply being informed about them, and perhaps your co-workers’ or clients’ enthusiasm surrounding them, will inform your understanding of a different culture.