Ati-Atihan Festival | Kalibo, Aklan, Philippines
At more than 800 years old, Ati-Atihan Festival had surpassed many human lifetimes, conquerors, presidents, wars, victories, calamities & yes, the coronavirus. It inspired the creation of many lavish fiestas that happen everyday across the 7,000 plus islands in the Philippines. And it still continues to charm everyone to this day, despite how the pandemic muted its celebration.
Ati-Atihan Festival honors the Infant Jesus, Sto. Niño but actually traces its pagan roots back to 1200AD. Indeed, in this time of uncertainties, more people hold on stronger to our faith and devotion to the Sto. Niño.
There are a few versions of how it came about. One is the welcome feast that the Atis gave to the 10 Bornean datus after a riddled trade of land for textiles, brass basins, a golden “salakot” & a long necklace.
Then there’s the story of thanksgiving where the Atis sang & danced for the new settlers in saving them from famine.
Whichever version is true, one thing is for sure — it is the oldest festival in the Philippines & one that is surely hard to top. Yes, no coronavirus can dampen the Filipino spirit of reverence.
Ati-Atihan Festival: The Mother of All Philippine Festivals
Where it all began in Kalibo Aklan, Ati-Atihan Festival is celebrated every 3rd Sunday of January. Its name owes the characteristics of the indigenous Ati people, that being short, dark-skinned & frizzy-haired.
While it is pagan in origin, Spain’s conversion of the Atis into Christianity turned the celebration into a religious devotion to Sto. Niño. This form of syncretic occasions combines both ethnic beliefs & Catholicism similar to how it is done in many other fiestas around.
Ati-Atihan Festival stirred the creations of many other festivals in the Philippines. Among them are the Sinulog in Cebu & the Dinagyang in Iloilo. Other towns in Aklan like Ibajay, Malinao & Malay also celebrate the same theme.
This is what you call a festival. This is what the world misses.
Surely, many misses the fun of Ati-atihan. Because unlike other festivals where the audience just stands as cold onlookers, Ati-Atihan is not a spectator event. You can dance with the Atis without the marshals shooing you away. You can weave in & out of the parade route like you’re one of them.
Imagine that feeling when you’re dancing with everyone to the heart-thumping beats of the drums. Visualize yourself surrounded by the psychedelics of colours & gigantic props. It’s ecstatic!
However, we can’t do all of those anymore with the various restrictions on mass gathering & other health protocols. Nonetheless, devotees continued the celebration in solemnity, austerity & silence. After all, its the devotion that matters.
Sure, this kind of chaos isn’t something that we are familiar about street dancing. We are used to watching an entertainment of choreographed spectacle. But Ati-Atihan Festival is differently beautiful.
It’s this kind of madness that everyone looked forward to each year in the past. And it’s the same aspiration that excites us all for that time to come when all our festivals come to life again.
The Ati-Atihan movement is easy to dance. It’s only single-forward, step-tap sequence & nothing more. And they’ve been doing this mincing step for hundreds of years.
“Sadsad” means dance in Aklanon. But during Ati-Atihan Festival, it also means a time for everyone to group together & battle it out on the streets. It’s a tradition for friends, families & organizations to parade in their colorful costumes & mightiest bands.
There are no specific parade routes, meaning groups can meet on the same street & create a massive roadblock. To determine who gets the right of way, each team puts their band on a face-off in what they call “paeaeongan”.
It’s so sad to lose this fun tradition. But we will hear the drums again hopefully soon.
“Paeapak” is another age-old tradition where the image of Sto. Nino de Kalibo is rubbed on the devotees while whispering prayers of healing. It is also called “pahilot” & observed by a massive following.
And here’s hoping for the healing of the world through the intercession of Niño Jesus.
Surviving Ati-Atihan Festival
Ati-Atihan Festival is a small-town celebration but the fun impact is phenomenal. From the 3-days of “sadsad” to the parties happening everywhere, surviving it means knowing how to pace your energy.
Truly, it’s worth remembering all the happy times when physical distancing wasn’t yet a thing.
Booze overflows during the festivity too. But in my few times of joining the fiesta, I had never seen any violence or partygoers passing out on the streets. Surely, it’s wild but it’s easy to spot how much they put reverence to the Señor too.
While Filipinos are known for our astounding party vibe, Covid made the Aklanons somber for a while. But hey, they are still fun-loving people!
Rooms in Kalibo, Aklan sell out fast as early as months before the Ati-Atihan Festival. So it is always advised to book way ahead of time. And take note that most hotels sell the rooms on a 4-day/3-night package. Meaning, it’s blocked out & on a steep festival price.
When everything is fine, let’s visit Kalibo again so we could help the local economy get up on its feet.
For its authenticity, heritage value, real inclusive vibe & fun factor, no doubt Ati-Atihan Festival is winning at all levels. Surely, with everything parading before your eyes, it’s hard to just stand & watch. Come to Kalibo, Aklan & experience the wonderful difference again in better days!
Hala Bira, Pwera Pasma! Viva, Señor Sto. Nino!