The History of the Jaro Fiesta

By glory moralidad

A Short History of the Fiesta of Jaro

Fiestas are wholly embedded within our beings. They allow us to relish the local culture and dance through time, reliving vistas of age as they echo what was once an era’s fascination.

Family and friends can be seen huddling and perching upon stools and tables alike to reminisce about the good ol’ times. Scents of fresh fruits and flowers (and a tinge of car gas) that permeate the air of the vicinity invoke a strange longing of the past. There’s something different about the Jaro Fiesta – magical, some may say – that leaves a nostalgic taste in the tongue.

Celebrated every 2nd of February, the annual fiesta of Jaro, Iloilo City is cited as one of the biggest religious celebrations in the country – combining solemnity, pomp and splendor. Aside from the traditional religious ceremonies being performed, the occasion also features the karnabal (carnival), agro-industrial fairs, beauty pageants, majestic balls, cock derbies and lavish luncheons and dinners that have drawn locals and foreigners alike to tread there.

The Candlemas and the Candelaria

The Candlemas is the feast celebrated every February 2nd to perpetuate two historical events in the Christian Bible: the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Presentation of a male child takes place forty days after his birth (eighty days for a female); thus, Jesus’ Presentation befalls on the 2nd of February because it is counted as forty days after Christmas.

In the same occasion, Mary had herself purified because according to Jewish Law, when a woman gives birth, she becomes unclean. And because she is unclean, the woman must not appear in public nor touch anything consecrated to God until she is cleansed. At the day of the Presentation/Purification, she must bring a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove for burnt and sin offerings. If she cannot afford a lamb, another pigeon or turtledove would suffice. The temple priest will then offer these offerings to God and will pray for her atonement.

Records show that the Candlemas was already being celebrated in Jerusalem in the 400 A.D. The Light or Candle Procession was already present and believed to be of pagan Roman origin. It was only in the 11th Century that the celebration of candles was realized and blessed by the Church.

From being a Christological celebration, the Candlemas turned into a Marian-centered feast because it is observed that the procession in both Eastern and Western Empires often concluded at a Marian Church. Centuries later, sculpted images showing Mary as the “Bearer of the Light of lights” strengthened the Marian image of Candlemas.

The Marian image or the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria is believed to have come from Tenerife, one of the seven Canary Islands. In a book written between 1580 to 1590 by Alonso de Espino, a Dominican friar, it was stated that the image was discovered a century before the Spaniards set foot on the Canaries. Because of the icon’s miraculous powers, its fame spread throughout the Islands and eventually reached Spain.

In the Philippines, accounts have revealed that in 1600, an image of the Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria was commissioned by Lt. Don Cristobal Mercado for the settlement in Dilao (now known as Paco). For some reasons, the image was relocated to a church in Los Baños and, in 1615, to Viling-Viling (now Mabitac). In 1904, there were nine pueblos in the country that had the Candelaria as their advocate with Jaro, Iloilo City as the center of the Candelaria devotion.

The Jaro Cathedral and the Fiesta

In a research made by native Jareña Marie Joy B. Rosal, the old Jaro Church was originally located in a vicinity named Alanga, the area where Lapaz is now located. The settlement was rehabilitated after the Dutch attack in 1614. In 1636, Fr. Bernardo Alisen, the parish priest of Jaro, decided that a transfer had to be made because the old church was always battered heavily by typhoons and also quite vulnerable from Moro Raids. The new church was finished sometime in the early 1700’s and is located on the spot on which the house of Doña Salud Montinola once stood. Presently, it is now where the Jaro’s SM Supermarket is. The Jaro Belfry, built in 1744, stands apart from the church and was used as a watchtower against invaders during the Spanish times.

Records show that in July 13 – though it’s unclear whether t’was on the year 1787 or 1824 – a strong earthquake brought extensive damage to the church and belfry. Reconstruction only began in 1833, spearheaded by an Agustinian friar named Fr. Jose Alvarez. Sometime in the 19th Century, the buildings were damaged once more. The parish priest around the time, Fr. Francisco Agueria, readied the plans for the construction of a new church, gathering necessary materials like bricks and logs from the forests of Concepcion and Negros.

With the raising of Jaro into a diocese in 1865 as decreed in the Papal Bull signed by Pope Pius IX, Bishop Mariano Cuartero, together with former governor Don Manuel “Capitan Pasado” Arguelles, carried out Fr. Agueria’s construction plans—only this time, in the form of a new edifice: a cathedral. The old church was considered “dingy and dark in the interior and had an unattractive exterior.” The Cathedral was named St. Elizabeth of Hungary in honor of Queen Isabela II who fully approved of the Bill. The Papal document was carried into effect two years later with religious ceremonies being held in Jaro. Fr. Jose Burgos, one of the martyred priests of the GOMBURZA trio, even witnessed the event.

During the Offertory in the Mass, the parishioners brought building materials like stone, sand and eggs instead of alms. Construction began on February 22, 1869. By 1874, the cathedral and the bishop’s residence were ready to be inaugurated. The celebration – inauguration and fiesta – was extremely grand and lasted for four days (from January 30 – February 2). The occasion kicked off with the blessing of the Cathedral; on the second day, a pontifical mass was held and the doors of the Cathedral were opened to visitors far and near for the first time; on the third day, the transfer of the Candelaria to the Cathedral was observed; and at the final day, the traditional blessing of the candles, a high mass and a solemn procession were held to end the four-day celebration.

A touching feature of the occasion was the “public dining place” that took place at the Jaro Plaza. All pilgrims—even including the underprivileged and prisoners from the Jaro Jail—were welcome to eat there. The then-local newspaper Makinaugalingon observed that no fiesta has been much more festive than Jaro’s. When the Cathedral reached its 50th year, other festivities were featured like games, musical events, agro-fair and the karnabal that was held as early as December – a feat that we can still see up to this very day. The year 1974 was a spectacular year for the Jareños because the Jaro Cathedral celebrated its 100th year. As years passed by, the public dining place eventually stopped due to economic deterrence. However, the spirit of food-sharing is still observed by Jareños in their own homes or in some gathering halls now.

Seven years after the Centennial of the Cathedral, Pope John Paul II came to Jaro and crowned the venerated image of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria and declared her Patroness of Western Visayas. The image is the only religious icon in the country to have been personally crowned by a pope.

(With research by Marie Joy B. Rosal. Photo by Edilbert Aguihap.)

Glory Moralidad founded Bata Ako Ph, which aims to bring back the lost art of storytelling to children. She has also been nominated and awarded for her work on various children's books.