Known to the locals as the “Ligligan Parul,” the Giant Lantern Festival, held every December to January, is a contest of the most colourful and artistic lanterns. The lanterns are designed by the parol makers of San Fernando (Pampanga), in the city that earned the title “Christmas Capital of the Philippines” due to its international popularity. During the Christmas season, visitors witness the geometric patterns of the massive lanterns spinning and swirling in a vortex of psychedelic colours. Groups of these “parols” are displayed along the City Hall to the rhythmic beat of live bands, some of which span a diameter of 20 feet.
The star lantern is considered the paradigm of Filipino Christmas. In 1928, Francisco Estanislao created the original star lantern, lit by either a candle or a kalburo lamp, as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. This simple shape then evolved into the rose, the bromeliad, the snowflakes and the sea urchin, which often remain hidden in the waves of colour and blending patterns. There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the symbolism of light, as the star is a sign of hope in the predominantly Christian country. In Pinoy Christmas lingo, the “Pampanga parol” has become a generic term for any elaborate star lantern.
Small candle lanterns were first used before Christmas, as the San Fernando lanterns improved with each passing year. They were first improved using material such as bamboo and sacks of cloth and then evolved into more advanced, colourful varieties. In the year 1931 electricity was established in San Fernando, which enabled the first Giant Lantern Festival to honour Aurora Aragon Quezon, wife of former President Manuel L. Quezon; who was visiting the province. Parol makers in Pampanga have taken the folk art further by building huge lanterns that are designed in great detail with mesmerising, colourful lights. Each giant lantern consists of thousands of whirling lights, set up by seven large steel drums, which electrify the bulbs when they touch a row of hairpins. Smaller lanterns are crafted from; crepe paper, Japanese paper, wood, plastic; glass, metal, capiz shell and other environmentally friendly native materials. This recyclable material can then be put to more aesthetic uses.
Every year ten giant lanterns are selected to compete in San Fernando’s Ligligan Parul. The festival has been held every December for the last 80 years in the Pampanga province, settled 75 kilometres outside of Manila. Participants come from; San Jose, Dolores, Lourdes, Sto. Rosario, Del Pilar; San Pedro, Sto. Niño, Sta Lucia and San Nicolas. San Fernando clans, known for their parol artistry for generations, compete in friendly rivalry. Awed tourists and city folks can purchase the giant lanterns if they have the means to take them home. After the midnight celebrations, there is a presentation ceremony dedicated to the maker of the most beautiful lantern.
The festival also features various exhibitions, including; street bazaars, carol singing and scheduled parties; some of which are held in the baroque churches and heritage houses. Visitors will find stands offering samples of local cuisine, delicacies that gave the city the title of “Culinary Capital of the Philippines.” Influenced by China and the Spanish, treats like sisig, pulutan, puto, dinuguan and silogs are all available for tasting.
The Giant Lantern Festival offers a diverse way to celebrate Christmas and gain a deeper understanding into the way art is used to cherish yuletide traditions. The representation of the Star of Bethlehem continues to be a traditional part of the festival, as its symbolic value is showcased in the lantern exhibitions.
In what ways does electricity influence life and society as a whole?