The Ati-Atihan: Of devotion and free-flowing drinks in Kalibo

Text and Photo by Tara Yap

True enough, the Ati-Atihan is the country’s “Mother of All Festivals.”

Every third weekend of January, the most striking social paradox unravels in Kalibo town, Aklan province. While holding an image of the Santo Niño (Holy Child Jesus) in one hand, a partygoer can hold a beer, whiskey or rum on the other hand as everyone snakes their way around the streets alongside folks wearing tribal costumes and slowly prance to repetitive drum and lyre beats.


The folks in tribal costumes with their faces painted with black soot depict the folkloric Barter of Panay, which tells the story of how 10 Bornean datus and their families escaped a despotic ruler in Borneo during the 13th century to settle in Panay Island. The Borneans had to trade their goods with the native settlers known as Atis to be able to peacefully live in the island. The Borneans supposedly painted their faces with soot to manifest their camaraderie with the Atis.

The presence of the Santo Niño image is the infusion of Christianity, which is culled from separate folklores. There are old timers who claim that it symbolizes how Kalibo locals were converted after being baptized by early Spanish colonizers. There’s also a version that the Ati-Atihan had its roots in the town of Ibajay, where a local fishermen found a wood that had a carved image of a child, which is presumed to resemble the Santo Niño.

While the Ati-Atihan’s historical basis is highly debatable, it brings a certain shade of Catholic religiosity that pays homage to a religious image for its blessings and miracles.

No matter how old, Kalibo residents don a heavy tribal costume to participate in the “sadsad” or religious dance parade. Others even have an altar at their homes solely dedicated to the Santo Niño while they prepare a bountiful table. Friends, family and even strangers can be seen enjoying food and drinks at homes in a similar fashion when villages or towns hold annual fiestas.

These days, Ati-Atihan is a mixture of the old and the new — of both Filipino traditions and a touch of Hollywood. Aside from people freely dancing on the streets while drinking free-flowing alcoholic beverages, it also transforms into an early Halloween party. Kalibo locals dress up as movie characters such as Superman, Batman, Darth Vader, or Marilyn Monroe while other choose iconic pop icons such as Michael Jackson.

It is widely accepted that the Ati-Atihan inspired other renowned festivals in the Visayas including the the Dinagyang of Iloilo City (which was even formerly known as “Iloilo Ati-Atihan) and the Sinulog of Cebu.

What makes the Ati-Atihan distinctive and memorable is its ability to entice its spectators to freely participate. Unlike the Dinagyang in Iloilo, spectators can see firsthand the folks in costumes and join them in the frenzied parade without having to buy a ticket.

In the Ati-Atihan, there are no walls and boundaries. It is the free spirit of Kalibo residents and guests from all over the Philippines
and abroad that make it a worthy and memorable festival.

When the sounds of the drums and the lyre die down in Kalibo, the Ati-Atihan revelers — whether Filipino or foreigners — will travel an hour north and begin another party spree at world-famous Boracay Island in Malay town.