Every January in my home town of Charleston, West Virginia, the large Filipino community in the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston gathers in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart to celebrate the Novena to the Santo Niño, a nine-day prayer to the “Holy Child,” the young Jesus. The tradition originates in the Philippines, where Spanish colonists introduced the native population to Catholicism, later taking hold as the dominant religion of the archipelago. As the one story goes, the original statue (Santo Niño de Cebú) that is venerated in the prayer was found in a box after a fire caused by conflict between natives and Spaniards left most of the city destroyed, the only surviving relic. Some claimed it was found by fishermen, others that it had been there since ancient times, but general historical conjecture describes the .3 meter tall wooden child as a gift from the Spaniard Magellan. It remains the oldest surviving Christian relic in the Philippines.
The prayer itself involves praises, supplication, chant, and a veneration of the Eucharist, the central aspect of Catholicism. The people gather around the statue dressed ornately in crown, orb, scepter, and robes before the altar and go through the rhythmic prayers one by one.
Of course, no celebration is complete without food. Families from various parishes throughout West Virginia make a pilgrimage to the Basilica, which is the National Shrine to the Santo Niño bringing home-cooked Filipino dishes to share, and the final celebration ends with a procession of the statue. When the statue returns to its original position in the shrine, one man yells out: “Viva Santo Niño!” To which the crowd vividly responds, “Viva!”
My family is Catholic and, though we are not Filipino, has attended the celebration since I can remember. The robes, incense, and organ all bring back memories of a much simpler time for me, and getting to attend one of the evening celebration when I returned this January from school was very centering, peaceful, and nostalgic.
The blend of West European and Southeast Asian cultures is perhaps the remnant of a rough colonial history, but shines today as a unique and beautiful aspect of many people’s lives, including mine.