The Giant Lantern Festival will have to be experienced behind a screen
If there’s one place in the Philippines that will keenly feel more than the others how the pandemic impacts the holidays—it’s San Fernando, Pampanga, the culinary capital that has also found itself in recent years as the Giant Lantern Capital of the Philippines.
As “Christmas Capital of the Philippines,” San Fernando has played host to the Ligligan Parul, an annual festival held in mid December in this city of blinding lights, where giant lanterns greet you as soon as you enter the city’s borders.
Kapampangans have taken great pride in their lanterns since Ligligan was established in the city in 1904, which started as a humble religious activity called “lubenas.” Only a century ago, the 15 feet lanterns we see now were just simple creations two feet in diameter, made from raw native materials like bamboo, with each barrio owning one to represent them.
In the nine-day novena before Christmas, during Simbang Gabi, the barrios would parade their simple lanterns around their area, and before midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, their parol would be brought to the town church, where it would take its place of pride beside all the other barrios’ creations.
Many years later, true to the Kapampangan custom of wanting only the best, and performing well in fierce competition, the lanterns became bigger as each resident took to heart their duty to contribute to building their town’s parol. The barrio’s parol would become not just a Christmas tradition, but a true symbol of cooperation and unity among the townspeople.
When electricity was introduced to the city in 1931, all bets were off. The barangays went all out with colorful dancing lights that inspired the design of even more complicated, intricate parols, with the town’s barangays trying hard to outdo each other in fierce but friendly competition.
The first lantern festival, held in honor of then President Manuel Quezon, was put up as the people of the city honored the first family. First Lady Aurora Aragon Quezon would personally award the winner of the festival.
A tradition that appealed to the Kapampangan’s love for the grandiose, small town customs, and outdoing each other, the Parol Festival became bigger and better as the years passed—papel de hapon became fiberglass, rotors substituted switches to control lights, two became 20 feet, and a few bulbs became 10,000 (and only because the organizers capped it at that number).
As the festival’s fame grew, and as the economy improved, more barangays from the city of San Fernando joined, and the venues became grander and fancier, with 2019 becoming a record-breaking year, topping 2006, as 12 barangays joined the festival.
In this city, parol making is almost as sacred as watch making is to Switzerland. It is an art form, and the science and the precision and the skills of parol making have been handed down from one generation to the next. Last year’s participants saw sixth-generation lantern makers take up the cudgels for their families, 20-year-old boys who have learned at the feet of their ancestors, who have taken it a notch higher by infusing new technology and new designs into their parols.
Here, lantern making is not just a business, or a livelihood—it is embedded into the culture and tradition and soul of the city, and of San Fernando’s natives.
In all the festival’s colorful history, since it began in the early turn of the century, the city’s people never wavered. The only times the festival was canceled were during the early years of the Martial Law, in 1972, 1973, and 1974. And now, even with the pandemic upon us, the city has found a way to continue and innovate.
In all the festival’s colorful history, since it began in the early turn of the century, the city’s people never wavered. The only times the festival was cancelled were during the early years of the Martial Law, in 1972, 1973, and 1974. And now, even with the pandemic upon us, the city found a way to continue and innovate.
This year, with Covid-19 still raging, the organizers decided to hold the annual exhibition virtually. With money being tight, only seven participating barangays are expected to join, and the public will be unable to see it up close as mass gatherings are still discouraged.
In a statement, the organizers said that the exhibition can be watched through various digital platforms. Live media coverage is also discouraged, but those who will insist to cover must undergo health protocol processes.
Unlike the previous years, no competition will be held among the barangays. But despite all the restrictions and challenges, and the reality that it would have been easier to just cancel it, the organizers said that the Grand Lantern Festival—this event that unites the city and gives great pride to the country—must continue to share the excitement brought by the traditional display and exhibition of colorful lanterns. And they are right to do so.
It’s in these times of darkness that we need San Fernando’s beautiful, vibrant parols the most.