The Santo Nio is no less than the soul of Cebu. Nothing is as important to the Cebuano psyche than the Santo Nio.
The Santo Nio is a little doll of the baby Jesus, given to the wife of Cebu's ruler Rajah Humabon, by Magellan himself. It was revered and displayed in a church. The church burned down in 1565 but the little statue was undamaged and consequently became more than a legend.
The Santo Nio is Cebu's patron saint and much more; it is an object of veneration of cult-like proportions. Cebu's grandest festival, the Sinulog, is a tribute to the Santo Nio.
A little plastic Santo Nio, dressed in red robes with gilt lining, can be found in every home and every vehicle. Every Cebuano holds the Santo Nio dear to her heart, and a good many worship him with daily prayers, and beseech his intervention in problems large and small.
This actual Santo Nio is found inside the Basilica Minore del Santo Nio, also known as Saint Augustin Church. You can get quite close and take a good look, as long as a mass is not ongoing. It is wearing a cape of sumptuous red cloth, and holds a septre in the left hand while making the sign of a blessing in the right. Not surprisingly, almost all Santo Nino statuettes are modelled after the original Santo Nino.
The Santo Nino is the target of a good many prayers. Cebuanos, devout Catholics and lapsed Catholics alike, beseech the Santo Nino for help with problems ranging from the mundane to the critical. Devotion to the Santo Nino is strongest in Cebu, but a Santo Nino can be found in many home across the entire Philippines; those in other parts of the country often appreciate it if a statuette of the Santo Nino is brought as a pasalubong (souvenir) from Cebu.
Now, non-Catholic readers may find that, on account of what has been described thus far, the veneration of the Santo Nino borders on idolatry. This is not the case, and the proof lies in the fact that there are numerous different representations of the Santo Nino. As shown on this page, the Santo Nino may be posing with his parents, or lying down taking a nap. And he may be fairly complexioned with blonde locks, or with a darker skin than any Cebuano. The point is that the little statues represent an ideal, and are not adored as gods; if they were, then such light-hearted depictions as a dozing Santo Nino would be out of the question.
Even though the Holy Child is a child, it is respectfully addressed as "Senyor." Hence the Sinulog greeting: "Viva Pit Senyor!"