Ati-Atihan is a quasi-religious mardi gras held every January in Kalibo. The culmination of the two-week event is a procession through the streets on the third Sunday of January, a sustained three-day, three-night frenzy of carousing and dancing. Transvestites bring out their best frocks and schoolgirls with hats made of coconuts join aborigines, celebrities and priests in a fancy-dress. Throw in the unending beat of massed drums and the average Filipino’s predisposition for a good party, and the result is a flamboyant alfresco rave that claims to be the biggest and most prolonged in the country. The Ati-Atihan mantra Hala Bira, Puera Pasma translates as “Keep on going, no tiring.”

The festival’s origins can be traced to 1210, when refugees from Borneo fled north to Panay. Panay’s Negrito natives, known as Atis, sold them land and both parties celebrated the deal with a feast, which was then repeated year on year. The fancy-dress element derives from the lighter-skinned Borneans blacking up their faces in affectionate imitation of the Atis. Later, Spanish friars co-opted the festival in honour of the Santo Niño, spreading the word among islanders that the baby Jesus had appeared to help drive off a pirate attack. It was a move calculated to hasten the propagation of Catholicism throughout the Philippines, and it worked. Ati-Atihan has since become so popular that similar festivals have cropped up all over the Visayas. Historians generally agree, however, that the Kalibo Ati-Atihan is the real thing.

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