Sto. Niño Festival Manila: In the name of a child

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Devotion to the Sto. Niño, the image of the child Jesus, is prevalent in most parts of the Philippines. In the Visayan region alone, there are popular Sto. Niño festivals held in Kalibo, Iloilo and Cebu. In Manila where I grew up, its largest district of Tondo has the Sto. Niño as its patron saint, and I recall being a child and brought to attend its feast day by my grandmother. It is common for even the remotest little towns, or even the smallest districts in the cities, to have their own patron Sto. Nino upon which people address petitions.The devotion to the Sto. Nino knows no boundaries.

I was not so much surprised, therefore, to hear that Ben Farrales is an active devotee. More than being just one of the Philippines’ top designers, the man is respectfully referred to in the industry as the Dean of Philippine fashion. Through his career that spans decades, he has helped put the international spotlight on local design with his novel use of native prints, the most popular of which is his take on Mindanao prints. He is known for innovatively integrating these prints on modern silhouettes and shades. He is, in short, a pillar, an icon. And his Sto. Nino devotion makes him an icon admiring back a revered holy icon.

What got him into the devotion? What has it brought to his life? How does he express the devotion? The answers that the gracious Dean gave me pointedto a nationwide congregation of Sto. Niño devotees, with Farrales as the founding chairman. And all of it led me to an annual Sto. Niño novena-exhibit that culminates in a procession, dubbed as one of the country’s largest Sto. Niño processions.

The Hermano

Farrales, at 78 years old, still works daily in his fashion shop at Malate, Manila. During my visit at the shop,I saw his assistants still approach him for advice, even on little yet significant details, as in which type of button should be used on a barong (formal woven man’s shirt). On the day I visited him, though, Farrales and his crew were extra busy with something else – the preparations for the Sto. Niño festival, slated for the last week of January. Apart from his shop assistants, he was also approached time and again by his staff for the festival, giving him information on how the venues were being prepared.But I wanted to get to the root of it all fi rst and asked Farrales how the interest on the Sto. Niño came to him.

“It was not a sudden interest. It grew on me, being a Bedan, because the Sto. Niño is a patron saint of San Beda,” Farrales pointed out, in reference to his student days at the San Beda College in Manila.

With that initial immersion to the Sto. Niño as his foundation, the designer was primed for a deeper kind of devotion. Along with his artist friends, he was an ardent participant in Sto. Niño festivities in Malolos, Bulacan, a province south of Manila, since 1972.When the United Nations declared 1979 as the International Year of the Child, and an exhibit of Sto. Niño Images at the Museum of Philippine Arts was staged in Manila in tribute to the occasion, Farrales and the same group were among those who volunteered to lend their Sto. Niños in the exhibit. It was during this exhibit that they saw the magnitude of devotees to the Sto. Niño in Manila alone. The group then organized themselves as the Congregacion del Santisimo Nombre del Niño Jesus (Congregation of the Holy Name of the Infant Jesus), with Farrales as the founding chairman.

“We felt we had to make a definite stand. We wanted to practice and expand our commitment,” explained Farrales. The congregation was granted a pastoral blessing by the then Manila archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, and has since carried on the monumental work of raising awareness on the devotion to the infant Jesus throughout the country. And with members abroad, the congregation is also able to perform apostolic works through pilgrimages in shrines of the infant Jesus in Europe and the Americas.

The congregation’s signature work, though, is its annual ten-day exhibit of Sto. Niño images by owner-devotees, marked by a novena and capped by a grand procession of the images on the last Sunday of January.As I was instantly reminded of how novenas are prayed for the granting of petitions, I asked Farrales what he asks from the Sto. Niño when he does the novenas.

health and a good day at the shop, peace of mind, nothing material, and I don’t ask for the impossible,” said Farrales. “On instances when I fail to pray my novena, I get a feeling that something is not right. Even when I go abroad, I bring these novena prayers.” Farrales handed me a copy of the novena. I had to ask next what petitions of his had been granted, and he was quick to cite that despite his prostate problem and given his age, he still is able to do the work he has been doing for the longest time. When I asked if he considers this a miracle, and if he knows other miracles concerning the Sto. Niño images of other members of the congregation, he explained that “miracles can be suggestive,” and we have to remember that any Sto. Niño image is “a piece of wood, it’s a symbol.” What matters more is faith in the Lord, and “a quiet devotion,” said Farrales, the kind that does not require miracles for it to grow.

The Niños

Heeding Farrales’ advice, I attended the last day of the exhibit of the Sto. Niño images at the Philippine National Bank (PNB) near the Cultural Center of the Philippines. I had a chance to see the Niños up close, before they were mounted on their grand carrozas (floats). Seeing every image in their robes or costumes, I remembered asking Farrales if he has ever designed a Sto. Niño attire, to which he replied “no,” because if ever he’d try, he would rather be authentic. “The design, every element of it, has a purpose, a meaning,” said Farrales. “I know my limitations. There are people who are more capable to do it.”

In fact, the exhibit showed that dressing up a Sto. Niño is not about having a Farrales level of talent at all. And he was right in pointing out the importance of devotion, because the clothes of the Sto. Niños did reflect the depth of devotion that their owners had.

I would classify the Sto. Niños I saw under two categories, based on how they were garbed – the traditional and the thematic. These are not official classifications but simply a personal way of grouping the unbelievably huge number of Niños I saw at the PNB.

The traditional ones donned the customary laced or velvety robes, with embroidered fleur-de-lis patterns on metallic-glowing threads in either gold or silver. They were all either crowned, aureoled, or capped with the same laced or velvet fabrics. With their right hands they either gestured blessings or held scepters, with their left they either held tiny, shiny globes or the Sacred Heart. Some rode ponies or sat on thrones. Most stood on podiums with cherubs at their feet.

Then there were the thematic Niños. There are those that were dressed based on the trade of their devotee-owners. Policemen, guards, doctors, dressmakers, fishermen. There was even a mountaineer Sto. Niño, a driver Sto.Niño, and a construction worker Sto. Niño. There are those dressed based on their country of origin, or on the nationality of their owners, such that I saw Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese Sto. Niños.

Still, I saw a lot that I cannot categorize within these simplistic terms, mostly the unforgettable ones. I saw a Sto. Niño with his face painted as if he was weeping. He was looking at his right hand which held a cross, while he held with his left hand a crown of thorns and crucifixion nails. This child is seeing his fate, I thought. Then, as I went on through the exhibit, I saw at least two Sto. Niños actually crucified. I was amazed at the courage that the owners of these Niños had, because I knew how uneasy I’d be every day, having to see the image of a child suffering. Only a devotee with unshakeable faith could possibly see the promise of salvation behind the image of pain.

I saw these devotees on procession day. They pushed and pulled the carrozas decked with flowers, fruits, bread and candies. Some of them hurled candies at children watching the parade. I even saw the mountaineer owner of the mountaineer Sto. Niño, simply holding up his Niño while he marched, since his Niño had no carroza. As for the doctors, policemen, and farmer devotees, none of them were recognizable in the crowd that were joyously united all throughout the procession.

And as for Farrales, although he was present in the event, he was invisible, as I am sure he preferred to be. After all, all of it was all about the holy child, whom he credits for the blessings he has been receiving.

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