Girls in flowing skirts, some in glittering finery inspired by Spanish-period Philippines, swayed and sashayed on the streets in the late afternoon sun, wielding props in the shape of candles.
The costumes came in bright, different colors and the groups of dancers carried large pictures of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria or Our Lady of Candelaria. By early evening, the groups of dancers competed in a grand showdown with the backdrop of a giant Christmas tree and the church whose façade was lined by lights. This was the culmination of the Cantago Festival of Tagoloan, a town in Misamis Oriental, just outside Cagayan de Oro City, the hub of northeast Mindanao.
The festival is still nascent, just three years old, but the town, like many towns in predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, has been venerating its patron Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, whose feast day falls on 2 February. Tagoloan is predominantly populated by the Cebuano ethnic group, who are mostly Catholic.
In the town’s church, the image of the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria was newly dressed up, in white accented with deep orange appliqués of leaves, flowers and birds, a very attractive garb. It has been a tradition to change the dress of the revered image with a new one before her feast day, traditionally marked by masses, a novena, processions and feasting. The old dresses are stored and on display in a new museum at the back of the church.
Though no one can tell exactly how old is the image of the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria, the townsfolk believe it to be old and miraculous. It is thought that it was the Jesuit missionaries who brought the veneration of Our Lady of Candelaria to Tagoloan.
The local parish’s short history of the image tells about the townspeople fleeing to the remote barangay of Santa Ana from the invading Japanese army in 1942. Two parishioners, a man and his nephew, went back to get the image of Our Lady of Candelaria from the church. They were able to get the head and hands of the statue and the image of the infant Jesus, packed inside a sack. On the way to Santa Ana on horseback, the cargo fell into the river they were crossing, but the boy was able to retrieve it. In Santa Ana, the image was placed in an altar of a chapel. The Tagoloan Church was bombed five months later. After the war, parishioners carved a body out of santol wood for the Virgin’s head and hands and fashioned a gown out of a white United States army tent. On 3 February 1986, after the feast day, the image of Our Lady of Candelaria was placed on a boat for a fluvial procession from the town proper to the barangay of Baluarte, together with musicians. Along the way, a large wave hit the boat, overturning it. Fortunately, no one died, and the image and the musicians arrived safely.
In 1992, a lay group called Mother Butler began making gowns for the image, which became a tradition. Yearly, the image is dressed with a new gown as people pray the rosary before the start of the nine-day novena leading to her feast day. Devotees began donating new gowns, many of these quite lavish.
A new chapter
Now, another chapter is being added to the history with the creation of the Cantago Festival. The municipal government, led by its mayor Heckert “Manok” Emano, thought of creating a festival for the town.
For some years now, many towns and cities in the Philippines have been creating festivals to promote their places, taking inspiration from local cultures and anchoring on significant events such as foundation anniversaries.
Like many towns, Tagoloan chose its fiesta.
The Tagoloan local government sought the help of Mindanawon director, community and event organizer and cultural worker Basilidas Pilapil, Jr. to help shape the celebration.
The name became a shortened form of Candelaria sa Tagoloan and the event was meant to be a thanksgiving to their patroness.
Like most festivals in the country, its highlight is the street dancing and showdown, participated in by the town’s different barangays. Pilapil steered away from the style of the Sinulog Festival of Cebu, which has become the inspiration and template of many such festivals. He encouraged Tagoloanons to mine their own heritage, stories and local culture and to create their own dance steps. They have come up with eight dance steps.
The image of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria and the symbols of the candle were made inspirations for the looks, concepts and themes.
The music, meanwhile, is laced with “Daygon Ta,” which is sung to the Virgin.
This year, the Cantago Festival was held from 23 January to 3 February filled with a motley of events such as social gatherings, a bazaar, a trade fair, sporting competitions and shows featuring celebrities such as Bamboo and comedians Wacky Kiray, Big Mouth and Laarni Lozada.
The street dancing and showdown was held on 1 February. Contingents from the town’s 10 barangays — Baluarte, Casinglot, Graciela, Mohon, Natumolan, Poblacion, Rosario, Santa Ana, Santa Cruz and Sugbongcogon — paraded on the streets, each led by their festival queen. Afterwards, each contingent presented their dances for the showdown in an open field, expressing different devotions to Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.
In the end, the contingent of Santa Ana was declared champion. They also clinched the Best in Choreography, Best in Musicality and Best in Costume awards. Maurice Daroy was hailed Best Choreographer. Last year’s second-placer, Santa Ana beat Casinglot, which was champion of the two previous years. Casinglot took second place, while its choreographer Webster Sabunod was the Second Best Choreographer and its festival queen named Hara sa Cantago. The third place was bagged by Gracia, which won the Best in Street Dancing award. Gracia also placed third last year.
The Cantago Festival is the brightest light on Tagoloan’s path in discovering more of its local arts and culture.