Giant Lantern Festival, City of San Fernando, Philippines

Christmas season in other countries usually starts late in November or early December. But in the Philippines, as early as September, you will begin to hear Christmas songs being played and see houses being decorated. The most common and widely used decoration unique to the Philippines is the parol which is almost always present in every house. It is a star-shaped lantern that symbolizes the star of Bethlehem that became the guide for the Three Kings to be able to find the manger of Jesus Christ. Being a Christmas ornament native to the Philippines, an annual festival of parol is being held in December on a Saturday before Christmas Eve. It is called the Giant Lantern Festival celebrated in the City of San Fernando, Pampanga.

The Philippines had been colonized by the Spaniards for more than 300 years that is why Spanish religion, culture, tradition as well as language are still prevalent. The word parol is not an exemption. This word is derived from the Spanish word farol, meaning “lantern”.

The ornament parol is traditionally made out of bamboo and paper. It started as a five-pointed star made out of strips of bamboo as its skeleton with colored Japanese paper as its cover and it is illuminated using a candle. It was also used to light the paths of the people attending dawn Masses or Misa de Gallo during the yuletide season because there is no electricity yet in a number of rural areas.

The parol started as paper and bamboo lantern but has evolved incredibly over time. Now, it comes in various shapes and sizes, some are even made of glass, plastic or metal. Even the lights used have become modern as well, but generally, the basic star pattern still remains dominant.

Though the word parol is of Spanish origin, the artisan who originally crafted it is a Filipino. The five-pointed star lantern was originally created by an artisan named Francísco Estanislao in 1908. He is an artisan from Pampanga, the place which hosts the annual Giant Lantern Festival in the Philippines.

The Giant Lantern Festival in Pampanga is an annual Christmas event that has become so popular that the province where the festival is being held has been named the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines “. It attracts various craftsmen from across the archipelago mainly because the festival features a giant lantern competition.

The festival started as a religious activity known as “lubenas” wherein the parols are brought in procession around the barrio during the nine-day novena before Christmas. This coincides with the simbang gabi from December 16 to 24. The lanterns are then brought to the town church together with the barrio patrons before the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

This traditional lantern gradually evolved and the lanterns became bigger with designs becoming more intricate. The lanterns are created by each barrio by using bamboo and other locally available materials. Through the years, more innovations were made to the lanterns. Traditional papel de hapon was replaced by colored plastics. Then the colored plastics used were changed to fiberglass. The bamboo was then replaced by metals. And lanterns now have considerably grown in size. Some are approximately 20-feet tall or 40-feet in diameter. They are being illuminated using about 3,500 to 5,000 pieces of light bulbs.

But even though the lanterns have gone a considerable number of changes, the main goal of the festival still remains the same. One big lantern is made by each barrio with everyone building or contributing to it through a cooperative effort. These lanterns symbolize the cooperation of the people. It is a representation of unity for the barrios.