In the Philippines the Holy Child is known as Santo Nño, and depicted in red and gold vestments (like the statues in Cebu City or in Tondo-Manila or the Holy Child of Prague) carrying a round world on his left hand and a staff on the right. On the head he has a crown and the garments are those of a Little Prince. But, according to old traditions underneath these garments there is an ordinary boy who made a lot of miracles.
Going back in the centuries, in Spain the Holy Child, or Santo Nño, was seen in a different perspective: his garments were very like a pilgrim wearing an ordinary and large hat and on the left a drinking gourd hanging from a staff and on the right a basket with bread. People who were witnessing his first miracles said that he appeared as a little dark-skinned five-year old boy, who often wanders around to play with other children. Santo Nño became popular in Atocha during the 13th century, when Spain was under Muslim rule. There a little boy was reportedly seen bringing food to Christian prisoners who were jailed because of their faith.
As a strict rule nobody could bring food to those in jail except their own children. Fearing for the survival of prisoners who did not have children some young women started to implore Our Lady of Atocha for help. Soon, those children who brought food to their parents came home with stories regarding a young boy who was visiting the other prisoners. He had with him a water gourd that seemed to have endless supply of water, and a basket full of bread for the unlucky prisoners. Those who prayed to the Lady of Atocha wanted to know the identity of the boy in order to thank him, but without success. Soon it happened that while the faithful were praying in front of the statue of the Lady of Atocha they noticed that the Holy Child held in Her left arm had worn out slippers. So, they replaced these with new ones, but soon these too became worn out. This occurred several times. Consequently, the faithful took this as a sign: the boy who was going out every night to help those in need was nothing more than the Infant Jesus.
Following these events the devotion to Santo Nño de Atocha spread all over Spain following Christians that were recovering their ancestral lands from the hands of muslim rulers. As time passed he was recognized more and more as a little pilgrim, wandering not only in Spain but also as a little companion of sailors on their voyages toward America and Mexico.
Then on 10 August 1519, five ships under Magellan’s command left Spain for his expedition to a world still unknown. On 16 March they reached the island of Homonhon in the Philippines. Nearby the island of Cebu Magellan met Rajah Humabon who was friendly with the Spaniards; both he and his queen Hara Amihan were baptized as Christians and were given the image of the Holy Child (later known as Santo Niño de Cebu) which along with a cross (Magellan’s Cross) symbolizes the Christianization of the Philippines.
According to some this statue of Magellan was carved in Flanders a region of northwest Europe, which includes parts of northern France, western Belgium and southwest Netherlands, but it might have been similar to the Santo Niño de Atocha. Anyway old documents about the Santo Niño de Cebu never mention the features of the image presented to the Rajah and his wife.
Nowday Santo Niño de Cebu behaves like the boy in Antocha. For this reason he his presented in various forms and features: sometimes as a small fisherman with fishing rod and basket full of fishes, or as a farmer, or a worker. He could be an indigenous boy or a student. But his main characteristic is to wander where people need his help.
Like this story. A couple from an upland area in Cebu said one day they lost their carabao, water buffalo. That night while preparing to pray before the altar, they noticed that their small statue of Santo Niño was also gone. The next day, the couple was awakened by their neighbor’s call outside. When they went out they saw the neighbor holding their carabao. When they asked where he found it, the neighbor said he saw a little boy passing by his house with it, but when he went out to ask where the boy was bringing it, he was already gone leaving the beast there. Pleased that their carabao was recovered, the couple instinctively went to the altar to pray, but they were just surprised when they saw that their Santo Niño was back. When they looked closely, his vestments were filled with thistles (amorseco). The couple believed that it was the Holy Child who came out to look for their carabao, hence the thistles in his clothing. (Liv G. Campo)
Today in some places, because many miraculous stories of his wanderings, the Santo Niño has been renamed Santo Niñong Gala or Palaboy . Some of his images are depicting him has a wanderer, dressing a sleeveless shirt, a woven hat and a cross staff. And like an ordinary boy, the Santo Niño devotees leave at the foot of his statue shoes and slippers.