Ati-Atihan Festival

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January 23, 2009
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January 23, 2009

Ati-Atihan Festival

The Ati-Atihan Festival is an annual feast held in honor of the Santo Niño held every month of January and concluding on third Sunday, in the town of Kalibo, Aklan.

It is the wildest among Philippine fiestas and considered as the Mother of All Philippine festivals. Celebrants paint their faces with black soot and wear bright, outlandish costumes as they dance in revelry during the last three days of this two week-long festival. Catholics and non-Catholics alike observe this special day with processions, parades, dancing, and merrymaking.

There is a modest range of accommodation in Kalibo: Tourists are advised to book reservations well before the Ati-Atihan.



A 13th century (c.1212AD) event explains the origins of the festival. A small group of Malay datus, fleeing Borneo, were sold some land by the Ati people, the original inhabitants of Panay Island. The new arrivals celebrated the event at a great feast by painting themselves black to look like them.

The Ati are still distinguishable today by their dark skin and curly hair, and the name “Ati-Atihan” translates as “To be like an Ati”. It is considered to be, along with the Sinulog of Cebu, “The Mother of all Philippine Festivals” which was eventually copied by other similar celebrations across the Philippines such as the:

  • Dinagyang of Iloilo
  • Halaran of Capiz
  • Binilirayan of Antique
  • Maskarahan of Bacolod.
  • And also Ati-Atihan’s of several nearby smaller towns of Aklan, Antique, and Capiz.

Ati-Atihan was originally a pagan festival. Missionaries gradually added Christian meaning. Today, Ati-Atihan is celenbrated in honor of the Christ Child, the Santo Niño. Three days of parades lead up to the main procession that starts in the church on Sunday afternoon. The parades are colorful and vibrant, much like the Mardi Gras carnival in Brazil.


The Ati-Atihan Festival, having become a hodge-podge of Catholic ritual, social activity, indigenous drama, and a tourist attraction, now stretches over several days. Days before the festival itself, the people attend novena masses for the Holy Child (Santo Niño) and benefit dances sponsored by civic organizations. The formal opening mass emphasizes the festival’s religious intent. The start of the revelry is signaled by rhythmic, insistent, intoxicating drumbeats, as the streets explode with the tumult of dancing people. The second day begins at dawn with a rosary procession, which ends with a community mass. The merrymaking is then resumed. The highlight of the festival occurs on the last day, when groups representing different tribes compete. Costumes, including the head-dress, are made of abaca fibers, shells, feathers, bamboo, plant leaves, cogon, and sugar cane flowers. The day ends with a procession of parishioners carrying bamboo torches and different images of the Santo Niño. The contest winners are announced at a masquerade ball that officially ends the festival.

Mardi Gras comes to the Philippines in spectacular style when the people of Kalibo take to the streets to dance through the night and parade their magnificent costumes. It’s as festive an event as New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro could offer, with the strange feature of everyone having painted black faces.

Today things have got a little more complicated and the sound of drums booms through the town in frenzied rhythms for the entire duration of the three day festival (well actually, it lasts two weeks but the most important part culminates in the last three days). Everyone in striking distance is commanded to dance – or at least shake a hip or two. Over the centuries, the Ati-atihan hasn’t escaped the influence of the Catholic church either, and this festival has grown to honour St Niño, the child Jesus too. (Other Philippine cities have tried to copy this festival too).

Everything goes during the three days – and costumes take various ridiculous guises. Transvestites sport their favourite frocks, schoolgirls with coconut hats jump around with aborigines, national heroes, drag queens and spacemen. Some of the costumes are so big that they block the streets. And of course, no fiesta would be complete without a beauty pageant, so there are a few of those.



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