Spanish chroniclers say that it was in the summer of 1565 that the first Santo Niño procession was held in the El Cuidad de Santisimo Nombre de Jesus newly- founded on the burned Zubu (Cebu) village of King Tupas. The occasion was the transfer of the image from the village house where it was found in Sawang (San Nicolas) to a humble but special shrine made of wood and nipa, later to become the San Agustin church. The ciudad governor, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, and the chaplain of Spain’s second expedition led the procession to Cebu, Fr. Andres de Urdaneta. Other Spanish officials in this new Spanish settlement in the Far East were in that first Santo Niño procession in their European finery. So were the natives who followed their Little King to its new home in its enthronement. At sea by the shoreline, the Spanish galleons under Legazpi moved slowly in the waters as a fluvial escort of the image to its new site.
That was the first procession of the image found in the Tupas village in 1565 and identified by the Legazpi expedition as the same image given by Ferdinand Magellan to the same people and their queen, Juana, in 1521 when the first Spanish expedition to that part of the world found Cebu.
As cited by D. M. Estabaya, some Spanish writers recorded the fact that this first historic procession would be followed in the next year by the first celebration of the feast of the Santo Niño. For over a century, the feast, as in the 1565 procession, was traditionally held on April 28 as it was in April that the image was first recovered. In 1721, Pope Innocent XIII transferred the feast to the second Sunday of Epiphany (third Sunday of January) in order to move it out of the summer season of Lent.
But whether in April or January, the jubilant but religious character of the feast has remained to his day, always ushered in by the 420-year-old ceremonial procession of the image. Even before the procession are the days of prayer (novena) and personal petitions from the devotees. During the Spanish times, there were fireworks after the procession, and from out at the shoreline were salutes sounded off by the galleons. Anywhere else in the shrine ground was exhibited the dance prayer, sinulog, by people from all walks of life.
The religiosity of the feast is embodied not do much in the annual procession and festivities. It lies more deeply in the people’s time-tested devotion to the Infant Christ. Through the years, this devotion has given rise to legends of the image. But even increasing in number are the personal stories, written or unwritten, of miracles shown by the image in the lives of hundreds of devotees who manifest their worship in the sinulog dance, prayers and candle- burning. The miracles told range from the supernatural events defying the natural law to personal strength and the restoration of faith in hitherto lost souls.
Having endured political changes in the country, the Santo Niño de Cebu devotion manifested in the yearly celebration has seen a few modifications. Like when only the fireworks remained with the native festivities, even as the novena and the procession have lasted all changes. In 1981, a parade and Mardi Gras was added to the celebration now called the Sinulog.
On the eve of the feast on Saturday afternoon is held the procession where at the head are the cereals (wax) or candle and Cross bearers. The central figure is the centuries-old icon placed on a carriage bedecked with flowers pushed by the year’s Hermano Mayor. Yearly, the procession emanates from Basilica Minore del Santo Niño (San Agustin Church), the old site of the shrine which in 1730 was first rebuilt from the wood and nipa structure into a concrete baroque San Agustin church extant to this day, now titled a Basilica.
At dawn of the feast proper has survived the aurora, dawn prayer of the communities said to originate from Queen Juana’s dawn procession when she carried the image around town to pray that her people be delivered from pestilence.
The grand parade and Mardi Gras, initiated under the Sinulog Project in 1981, has been the regular expanded feature of the celebration. The historic gifting of the image and all events surrounding the Christianization of natives are reenacted in the parade while choreographed Sinulog dancers and performers lend ethnic color and sound to the annual parading pageantry. For its beauty and historical perspective, the Sinulog Project is expected to be carried on through the future years the way the feast of the Santo Niño has endured. (OMA)