TACLOBAN CITY – For two weeks, Tacloban, the premier city of Eastern Visayas, trembled from a frenzy of activities, highlighted by festivities that gave a glimpse of the people’s rich heritage.
The merriment was part of the annual celebration of the feast of Señor Sto. Niño, the patron saint of Tacloban and Leyte.
The Kasadyaan-Pintados Festival of Festivals on June 30 lured thousands of spectators, including foreign tourists who were treated to a dance extravaganza that portrayed the way of life, livelihood and religious beliefs of the early inhabitants.
The dance parade along the major streets ended at the city sports complex for the showdown of groups in colorful costumes. This year, the contingent of Abuyog, Leyte, which presented the Buyogan Festival, won the competition.
The event is the region’s version of the Sinulog of Cebu, the Dinagyang of Iloilo, and the Ati-atihan of Kalibo—all held in honor of the Child Jesus.
But unlike in other places, where the feast day of the Sto. Niño is held in January, Tacloban has been celebrating it every June 30 for the past 118 years.
An incident more than a century ago changed the way the feast was observed in the city. In late 1888, the image of the Sto. Niño was brought to Manila for new vestments and restorative work. It was shipped back to Manila in January 1889, just a couple of weeks before the fiesta.
On its way to Tacloban, the boat carrying the image caught fire somewhere between the islands of Romblon and Marinduque. In the ensuing commotion, the image was among the cargo that was jettisoned.
The loss of the image saddened the people of Tacloban. Several months later, a new image of the Holy Child was procured and it was named the “Teniente.” (The missing Sto. Niño was known as “El Capitan.”)
In May 1889, however, a fisherman recovered a crate with a marking of “Sto. Niño Patron de Tacloban” floating near Semirara Island off Mindoro.
A team was sent to verify the report and bring it back to Tacloban. On June 30, while the people were preparing for a procession of the image of San Roque to implore an end to a cholera epidemic that struck their community, word spread that the “El Capitan” has finally arrived.
The people rejoiced as they reunited with the image of the Sto. Niño. It was said that those who were ill were healed when the procession passed by them.
Since then, Taclobanons decided to have the feast day of the Holy Child fall on June 30. They celebrate their fiesta with a concelebrated Mass, and fluvial and land processions to show their love and devotion to the Sto. Niño.
Another religious event observed every fiesta is the “Balyu-an Rites,” or the exchange of the images of the Sto. Niño. It is said that the venerated image enshrined at the Sto. Niño Church originated in Samar.
According to legend, the parish priest of Basey town in Samar just across the San Juanico Strait had exchanged the big image of the Sto. Niño of Barrio Busacada in Basey with a smaller one belonging to Kankabatok, the ancient name of Tacloban.
For several decades, this act of swapping images has been reenacted in the “Balyu-an Rites,” participated in by the parish priests and local officials of Tacloban and Basey.
Another activity that dwelt on the Warays’ past is the Subiran Regatta, sponsored mainly by the Department of Tourism.
For the past 31 years now, the sailboat race has always drawn crowds. On June 28, it lured 47 participants and hundreds of spectators.
Used by the early Warays who were mostly seafarers, the “subiran” or wind-blown outrigger with sail has been a useful means of transportation of small fishermen in Leyte and Samar.
Boatmen from Barangay Visoria in Carigara, Leyte, won most of the prizes of the 8-nautical mile race.