About This Festival
Ati-Atihan is a story of intertribal acceptance, immigration, and transformation, but in short, it’s the story of the Philippines’ first real estate deal. In the 13th century, Malay refugees fleeing Borneo were allowed to settle in what is now the town of Kalibo in Aklan, Philippines, by the generous and darker-skinned Ati tribe. To honor their new friends for granting them refuge and territory rights, the emigrant Malay Datu tribe painted their skin with dark pigments and threw a feast for the ages. It wasn’t long until the Ati tribe, starving from a poor harvest, descended from their home in the mountains to enlist the help of the Datus. The people had not forgotten the Ati’s past kindness and returned the favor by feeding them. The Ati expressed their gratitude through song and dance.
A few hundred years later, the Spanish Catholics, who had a particular distaste for pagan rituals and a fondness for the infant Jesus or Santo Niño, anchored in the Philippines. The Santo Niño has since played a central role in Ati-Atihan, particularly in the Patapak, a ritual in which a priest anoints all parts of the body with the Niño. With the knowledge that many tribes imbued certain objects with magic healing powers, the clever Catholic missionaries made an idol of a statue of Santo Niño, using the figure to heal faithful tribe members of their maladies. Once cured, the natives rejoiced in the streets, breaking out in a feel-good church hymn sing-along.
Colorful Beyond Comprehension
Above all, Ati-Atihan is a nine-day exhibition of costume and dance. Soot-black painted faces, feather headdresses, and animal bones create an arresting visual impression.
Drumming and dancing break out at dawn and continue on until the festival ends three days later at a masquerade ball. A mass outdoor procession follows a sacred image of Santo Niño from the Kalibo Cathedral to Pastrana Park. By early afternoon, even reluctant residents come out in their soot-covered best. The street dancing called sadsad is such a spectacle of downright exuberance that it seems a more apropos name would be happyhappy. In the evening, the infamous masquerade ball romps through the night, while thousands of people show up for the closing event, an atmospheric torchlight procession honoring the Santo Niño.