When the Spanish sailor Juan de Camus sorted through the ashes of a burned-down house in the Philippines in April 1565, he happened upon a plain pine box. Opening it, he found what would in later centuries become one of the most important icons in Filipino culture — a discovery that continues to inspire religious celebrations across the world, including in Anchorage.
Camus’ discovered a diminutive statue of the Christ Child, Belgium-made, holding a golden globe in one hand, with the other gesturing in a sign of giving blessings. It wore a simple wool hood over velvet clothing and was ornamented with a single chain necklace. The figure had been presented by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan 44 years before as a gift to the king and queen of the Philippines upon their baptism into the Catholic Church.
Camus gave it to local Augustinian priests, who organized a fiesta to celebrate the rediscovery of the statue. Now, nearly 450 years later, the Santo Nino statue stands in the Basilica Menor del Santo Nino in Cebu, the oldest church in the Philippines. It was built over the ashes of the burned house where the statue was first found by Camus. Today, the Feast of Santo Nino is a major religious celebration in the Philippines, with festivities extending several days in Cebu itself. Replicas of the popular Santo Nino statue are commonly placed in homes and businesses throughout the country all year long.
Over the centuries, the statue has been associated with many miracles. During WWII the Santo Nino church was bombed, but the statue survived undamaged. According to Philippine news reports, the city of Cebu was unaffected by the recent typhoon, which was predicted to hit Cebu but never made landfall there. The church was recently damaged in the Oct. 15, 2013 earthquake, including total damage to the belfry. But, again, the statue was unharmed.
The Santo Nino feast is traditionally celebrated on the third Sunday of January. In Cebu, celebrations went from Jan. 15 to Jan. 19 and included novena Masses at the basilica, a traditional procession of the Santo Nino statue through the streets of Cebu and a large festival downtown.
At Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Anchorage, which includes a large Filipino population, the Santo Nino celebration took place Jan. 26 with a drumming and music celebration followed by Mass and a community potluck.
Father Vincent Blanco, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe and originally from the Philippines, said he fondly remembers the Santo Nino celebration growing up in his home village.
“The child in itself can draw people together and can give us a joy and smile,” Father Blanco noted. “It’s a kind of love that we have for the child Jesus.”
In his home village in the southern Philippines, the feast involved a day-long celebration with music and dancing. Whole-roasted pig was at the center of the feasting.
Fellow Filipino Father Luz Flores, who serves at Holy Spirit Center in Anchorage, said that the music used for Santo Nino has a long cultural history in the Philippines that predates Christianity’s arrival there.
The drumming and dancing, called Ati Atihan, was featured during the recent celebrations at Lady of Guadalupe. It originates from an ancient celebration that marked the day when native highlanders on the Philippines island of Kalibo faced a famine and approached chiefs of the lowlanders to ask for assistance and food. In thanks for the generosity of their neighbors, the highlanders performed drumming and dances that began an annual celebration. Later, the Santo Nino feast took the place of this pre-Christian celebration.
The words to the traditional songs reflect this blending of old and new cultural traditions: “Pwera pasma,” or “away hunger,” and “Vivo Santo Nino,” or “Long live the Christ Child.”
Father Flores said that the annual celebration in Anchorage is a continuing of tradition and an important way for the local Filipino Catholics to come together.
“We are always community centered,” he said. “It’s our connection with the Christ child, and our connection with each other too. It’s our opportunity to gather as one community.”