Festivals - fiestas - are a combination of religious ritual and wild party. The Department of Tourism promotes Cebu as the "Fiesta Island," and they're not far off the mark. Cebuanos, like all Filipinos, love nothing more than a good fiesta, and Cebu is home to one of the biggest, the Sinulog. While the Sinulog is the mother of all fiestas, countless community fiestas, large and small, take place all over the country. Every town has its fiesta, and every neighborhood within the town has its own fiesta, on a different date. If you're not careful, you may be gorging yourself at several fiestas a month.

The fiesta habit was imported from Mexico while the Philippines were being ruled by Spain via Mexico. Technically, a fiesta is a tribute to the patron saint of the village, town, or city. Hence a fiesta, large or small, usually involves processions in which a statue of the patron saint is paraded around the neighborhood in a procession, while devotees follow and chant prayers, or sing religious songs. Some even bring a guitar. Often, the procession will be at night, with torchbearers leading the way. It can be a bit scary if you don't know what's going on.

The larger the fiesta, the more care and effort go into the processions. The larger fiestas will have hundreds of devotees in uniform, with the statue in a glass box, clad in sumptuous clothes, and lavishly decorated with flowers. Judging from the processions alone, the Philippines is a very rich country indeed.

Fiestas usually last a few days, with activities and ceremonies before and after the calendar day of the fiesta. The activities may include dance competitions, beauty pageants, kiddie beauty pageants, plays, concerts, in addition to masses and other religious services. Inevitably, a massive speaker system is trucked in and set up in the neighborhood basketball court, for a disco which lasts until the early hours of the next morning.

Often, the only space available to the town for these activities is a road passing through the town, and traffic will be blocked up for miles. In some cases, vehicles may end up passing between the happenings on the makeshift stage and the audience.

During a fiesta, it is customary to invite people to your house. The guests do not eat with the hosts. The host's job is to ensure that the guests are well looked after, with plates and drinks. The guests usually help themselves from a buffet. Since limited seating space is available within the cramped confines of a typical Filipino house, the guests take turns. The system is essentially the same for birthdays and funerals held at a private residence.

Here are some of the festivals listed by the Department of Tourism.

SINULOG JAN / 3RD WEEK Festival dedicated to the patron saint of Cebu, the Santo Nio. City erupts in a week of processions and dancing.
KADAUGAN SA MACTAN APR 22 - 27 A commemoration of the historic battle between Spanish conquistador Magellan and native strongman Lapu-Lapu.
HOLY WEEK APRIL Cebu City shuts down - even the radio stations - and everyone heads to Bantayan. Some watch people crucify themselves in Carcar.
DINAGAT FIESTA AUGUST Patron Saint: San Roque. Fisherman's festival in Cordoba, Mactan, with dances and street parades
MANTAWI FESTIVAL AUG 30 An artificial festival recently created by Mandaue City's mayor Teddy Ouano to cash in on Sinulog fever. Not worth attending.
LAPU-LAPU FIESTA NOV 20-21 Patron Saint: Nuestra Senora de Regla, or Our Lady of the Rule. Processions, fluvial procession, carnival, and beauty pageant.
CARCAR FIESTA NOV 24-25 Patron Saint: Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
CHRISTMAS DECEMBER Dawn Masses, lantern displays, and black-out inducing electrical illuminations all over the island. Check out the display outside Toledo City Hall.

In reality, however, there is only one, namely Sinulog. You may have heard of it; the Sinulog is famous internationally and many tourists fly in just for the Sinulog. It's one of the biggest if not the biggest festival in Southeast Asia. It is the mother of all fiestas.

Sinulog is a coming together of Cebuano's love for religion, dancing, and pageants. The whole thing lasts about a week. The holy icon of Cebu, the Santo Nio is taken out of the church, cleaned, dressed, and - like all the patron saints in a fiesta - is taken for a procession. In the case of the Sinulog, the Archbishop himself leads the procession, thousands follow, and police block traffic all over the city.

Meanwhile, dancing contingents from towns all over the island - sometimes all over the country and even other countries - assemble in Cebu. On the last two days of the festival - Saturday and Sunday - they march while dancing, to the delight of the crowd - often inebriated - thronging the sidewalks and packing the grandstands. A final performance is held at the Abellana Stadium on Osmea Boulevard. The contingents are subsequently judged, like contestants in a beauty pageant, and the whole thing is televised nationwide. Towns compete for municipal pride and some of the costumes are spectacular.

Sinulog has its dark side. The traffic is terrible, people drink way too much, and any business activity grinds to a halt. A lot of Cebuanos wait Sinulog out at home, catching up on their reading.

Some of the fiestas of the smaller towns are worth a visit. The fiesta in Naga involves a procession on boats, as devotees of the saint shout "Biba! Biba!"


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