The Ati-Atihan Festival

Text and Photos:  Frank Ossen

-'East is East and West is West,

Ne’er the Twain shall meet'-

said Kipling, never having visited the Philippines.



A true mixture of peoples and cultures, Filipinos indulge in countless celebrations, extravagant festivals and local fiestas, often lasting several days, displaying a unique intermingling of traditions and paganism with strong religious overtones.




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The spectacular Ati-Atihan festival, held on the third weekend of every January in the central Philippine town of Kalibo, is surely the rowdiest and most colourful ‘Mardi Gras’ in the country ; the whole town is carried away for three days. Preparations can take months. Making their costumes is painstaking work and they often spend a month’s salary on it, which is more than they can afford.


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It is said that the festival dates back to the middle of the thirteenth century, when ten Datu princes and their families fled their ancestral lands in Borneo. They sailed northeast and eventually anchored off the Philippine island of Panay, where a small and dark-skinned people, the Atis, welcomed them. These good-natured and peace loving Negritos granted the exiled princes some land on which to settle. Festivities were held, during which the newcomers dyed their faces black to blend in better with the native Atis.



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In later years, when hostile Muslims threatened Kalibo, the Jesuits, who had converted most of the country to Catholicism, repeated the deception. They persuaded the local population to blacken their skin and don war-like outfits, thus pretending to be Atis. This strategy worked, scaring the Muslims away. However, the church fathers reasoned that this triumph was accomplished through the intervention of Santa Niño, the Christ-Child King highly venerated by Filipinos, hence giving the festival a certain religious importance.


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Today thousands of people with sooty faces, wearing fantastic and often bizarre costumes, celebrate the Ati-Atihan with an intensity that boggles the imagination. Born with a distinctive feeling for rhythm, Filipinos dance, sing and parade around the clock, completely intoxicated by a cacophony of drums and xylophones. Westerners are urged to join in the celebrations and, despite a shaky start, they too soon get carried away – dancing with the crowd, painting their faces, and throwing coloured powder haphazardly. This frenzy, fuelled by a constant flow of cheap alcohol, culminates when legions of over-exited merry-makers form an enormous procession, marking the end of the festival.


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© Frank Ossen 2002                                                                                                  Click here for more Photos