The festival features a street parade with participants in bright-colored costumes dancing to the rhythm of drums, trumpets, and native gongs. Smaller versions of the festival are held in various parts of the province, also to celebrate and honor the Santo Niño. There is also a "Sinulog sa Kabataan", performed by the youths of Cebu a week before the grand parade.
Recently, the festival has been promoted as a tourist attraction, with a contest featuring contingents from various parts of the country. The Sinulog Contest is usually held in the Cebu City Sports Complex.
On the feast day at the Basilica, a Pontifical Mass is celebrated by the Cardinal with the assistance of several bishops of Cebu. Most devotees go to the Basilica to attend the mass before heading out to the streets to watch the parade.
The Sinulog dance steps were believed to originate from Rajah Humabon's adviser, Baladhay. It was during Humabon's grief when Baladhay was driven sick. He then ordered his natives to bring Baladhay into a chapel where the Sto. Niño was enthroned. Moments later, surprisingly, Baldhay was heard shouting and was found dancing with outmost alertness. Baladhay was questioned as to whether why was he awake and was shouting. Baladhay explained that he found a small child, pointing to the image of the Sto. Niño, on top of him and trying to wake him up. He, at great astonishment, scared the child away by shouting but couldn't explain why he was dancing the movements of the river. Up to this day, the two-steps forward and the one-step backward movement dance is still used by the Sto. Niño devotees believing that it was the Sto. Niño's choice to have Baladhay dance what the holy child wants them to dance.
On April 7, 1521, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan arrived and planted the cross on the shores of Cebu, claiming the territory in the name of the King of Spain. He presented the image of the child Jesus, the Santo Niño, as baptismal gift to Hara Humamay, wife of Cebu's Rajah Humabon. Hara Humamay was later named, Queen Juana in honor of Juana, mother of Carlos I. Along with the rulers of the island, some 800 natives were also baptized to the Christian faith. At the moment of receiving the image, it was said that Queen Juana danced with joy bearing the image of the child Jesus. With the other natives following her example, this moment was regarded as the first Sinulog.
This event is frequently used as basis for most Sinulog dances, which dramatize the coming of the Spaniards and the presentation of the Santo Niño to the Queen. A popular theme among Sinulog dances is Queen Juana holding the Santo Niño in her arms and using it to bless her people who are often afflicted by sickness caused by demons and other evil spirits.
The conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi arrived in Cebu on April 28, 1565 and destroyed the village ruled by Rajah Tupas. In one of the huts of the burning village, one of Legazpi's soldiers named Juan Camus found a wooden box containing the image of the Santo Niño lying amongst several native idols. Historians later said that during the 44 years between the coming of Magellan and Legazpi, the natives of Cebu continued to dance the Sinulog but no longer to worship their anitos but to show their reverence to the Santo Niño.
The Augustinian friars that accompanied Legazpi in his expedition proclaimed the statue miraculous and built a church on the site where it was found. The church was called San Agustin Church, later renamed to Basilica Minore del Santo Niño.
The first Sinulog parade was held in 1980, organized by David Odilao, then Regional Director of the Ministry of Sports and Youth Development. The parade was composed of students dressed in moro-moro costumes, dancing the Sinulog to the beating of drums.
The idea caught and thus, under the direction of the Cebu City Mayor Florentino Solon with the help of several influential Cebuanos, Odilao turned over the Sinulog project to the Cebu City Historical Committee under Kagawad Jesus Garcia. It was the task of the Committee to conceptualize the Sinulog festival and make it into a yearly event from then on.
In 1981 the following year, the concept of the Sinulog Parade was actualized, involving practically every sector in the Cebuano community. Marking its difference from another popular festival, the Ati-Atihan in Aklan, the Sinulog focuses not on the ritual itself but on the historical aspects of the dance, which, as it has been said, represents the link between the country's pagan past and Christian present.
The Sinulog committee then incorporated the two-headed eagle to a native warrior's shield. The native shield is supposed to symbolize the country's resistance to colonization while the Santo Niño's coat of arms printed on its face represented the country's acceptance of Christianity.