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Giant lanterns light up Philippine Christmas

The Christmas season kicks off in the Philippines when people start hanging parol, or Christmas lanterns, outside their homes in September.

The parol has become a symbol of Filipino Christmas and is as important to Filipinos as the Christmas tree is in Western cultures. 

Written history traces the art of making the parol to Francisco Estanislao, who is believed to have crafted the first one in 1908.

Oral tradition, however, says that the parol goes back to the early years of Christianity in the country, when people use it to light their way to church for the early morning Christmas Masses.

The traditional Filipino Christmas lantern is a five-pointed star made of bamboo strips with two decorative tails covered with “Japanese paper” and illuminated from inside. The word parol is derived from the Spanish word farol, which means lantern or light.

In recent years, the province of Pampanga, north of Manila, has hosted an annual giant lantern festival that signals the start of the nine-day liturgical celebration before Christmas.

The annual tradition has become one of the grandest global pageants of craftmanship and artisanship, where parols measuring up to 15 feet are paraded.

The beauty of the lanterns now lies in the genius and ability of its makers to manipulate huge metal cylinders, which have become the brain of the modern parol, controlling light that dances to the beat of the music. 

“We still respect and stick with the tradition and the meticulous dedication in the century-old artisanship,” said Agnes Romero, the organizer of this year’s celebration.

Among the 12 giant lanterns that competed for the top prize this year, a number come from the village of Estanislao, named after the purported crafter of the first parol.

This parol from the village of Santa Lucia in the province of Pampanga, north of Manila, is this year’s winner in the annual giant lantern competition on Dec. 14. (Photo by Angie de Silva)

“I started watching the competition when I was a little boy,” said Edwin Pangilinan, 63, the great great grandson of Estanislao. Pangilinan said that as children he and his cousins would polish bamboo with sandpaper to prepare the lanterns. 

The lanterns are now bigger than the ones Pangilinan and his friends used to make. They no longer make lanterns, leaving the craft to the young. 

However, Pangilinan said the parol continues to have a special place in his family’s Christmas celebrations.

“The lanterns are the best symbol of Christmas for us. It symbolizes the star that led the three kings to Jesus,” said Pangilinan.

Eduardo Aquino, 65, said the annual lantern parade in Pampanga summons him home. He travels for two hours every year to see the giant lanterns. 

“It’s a symbol of Christmas and we are welcoming the birth of our savior,” he said. 

He said his childhood friends are currently living all over, but they still return home every year for the celebration.

“I know they are coming home because there are no lanterns like the ones from our homes,” said Aquino. 

Rolando Ambrosio, 47, who has been making lanterns since 1988, said Christmas is not as merry if one does not have a lantern.

“If you make one, it feels like the Christmas spirit stays with you all the days of the year,” he said.

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