Ati-Atihan in Aklan is easily the most gaily celebrated festival in the Philippines. For two full days but often times extending to a week, townsfolk and foreigners intermingle in the streets in frenetic merriment, singing, dancing, jogging and dressed in colorful and outlandish costumes. Other covers their bodies and faces with soot, all beating drums, cans, tom-toms, and shouting ‘Viva kay Senor Santo Nino.”
The celebrants in soot imitate the Atis, a local name for the aboriginal highland tribe that could still be found in the backwoods of Panay. Others wear costumes that range from the ragged to the regal, from Oriental to the Western, and from the primitive to the space age.
The celebration is climaxed on its last day, always a Sunday, with a torch procession which starts and ends at the church. It is a slow moving procession of singing, dancing, prancing, chanting, and cheering throng that snakes through the town’s main streets to provide the awed on-looker a fantastic sight of a long and compact line of humanity bobbing up and down under torch flames.
The origin of the Ati-Atihan dates back to the 13th century when the region of Aklan was peopled by the Negritos. This rustic scene was one day broken with the arrival of boatloads of foreigners from Borneo who had fled from their land in search for better life.
This was resented by the Negritos and soon bloody encounters occurred between them. Desiring a peaceful life, the foreigners, the Maraynons initiated a peace talk with the aborigines and peace was ushered in with a rejoicing.
The epic event was celebrated with a feast, with the Maraynons daubing their faces with soot to show their desire to live in harmony with the natives.
Later, the Ati-Atihan was celebrated during the harvest season. During the Spanish era, however, Don Flores, the first Spanish encomiendero of Aklan, arranged with Datu Malanga and Madayag to hold the merriment during the celebration of the feast of the Holy Child Jesus.
Since then, Ati-Atihan is staged on the third Sunday after Three Kings. Kalibo Sto. Niño Ati-Atihan Festival was awarded by UNESCO and the World Costume Festivals as the “The Mother of all Philippine Festivals”.