Lighting Up Christmas – The Giant Lantern Festival of San Fernando

The Philippines is home to a variety of Christmas traditions, but particularly famous is the Giant Lantern Festival of San Fernando, the capital of the province of Pampanga, a 1.5 hour ride from Manila. Locally, the festival is known as the Ligligan Parul. It showcases the most popular product of Pampanga – the ‘parol’, or lighted stars. The artisans of Pampanga are renowned for their ability to create the biggest and most elaborate parol in the country. Each year, the best parol makers of the region show off their creations at the Giant Lantern Festival, vying for the title of ‘winning parol’ and lighting up the night sky.

In the early days, parol had simple star shaped designs, but they have evolved a lot over the years. Today, the biggest ones are about 40 feet in diameter and shapes vary from floral patterns to religious symbols. They are generally made from materials like soft drink straws, crepe paper, glass, plastic, bamboo dowels, and some even contain assorted electronic parts. For the artists who make the parol, excelling at their work is a matter of pride and building a reputation. Several hours go into the making just one of these superb works of art, and the cost can rise to several thousand dollars. Of course, once the Holiday Season is over, their creations have little use.

Photo: Anton Prima

The tradition of parol-making started back in the year 1928, and the person credited for it is Francisco Estanislao. He created the classic parol, which is a five-pointed star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men to Baby Jesus. The trend caught on in Pampanga and soon several other artisans followed in his footsteps creating innovatve designs. Artists started experimenting with blinking lights. Even today, the trends set by Pampanga in parol-making are followed all over the Philippines. In fact, ‘Pampanga parol’ is a term in local lingo, synonymous for any star lantern that is particularly elaborate. The first ever lantern festival was held to honor by the then President of Philippines, Manuel L. Quezon. At that time, he had converted the nearby Mount Arayat into a tourist resort, so the people of San Fernando showed their gratitude to the President through this festival. Quezon himself donated the prize for the contest winner. Interestingly, the modern Giant Lantern Festival had a predecessor, a religious activity known today as ‘lubenas’. These primitive lanterns were only about 2 feet in diameter and were created with locally available materials such as bamboo. The lubenas were held in procession during a nine-day celebration leading up to Christmas, and brought to the town church before midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. As the tradition became more popular, the lanterns gotlarger and fancier. Electricity was first introduced to parol making in 1931.

Photo: Ivan Hares 

Photo: Ian Ong 

Photo: Ian Ong