Parol a Tradition, an Art and an Ultimate Filipino Christmas Relic

Parol, a Tradition, an Art and an Ultimate Filipino Christmas Relic

TEXT & PHOTO: Kaycie Gayle

As soon as ‘ber’ months kick in Filipinos are very much eager to decorate their homes with Christmas ornaments. This signifies that the Christmas season has officially started in the Philippines. Among all the decorations that are displayed on every household, there is one that stands out the most and this is the Christmas lantern or locally known as ‘paról’. This ubiquitously displayed ornament is painting the holidays with a festive Filipino look. It makes the Christmastide in the Philippines colorful, lively, twinkling and full of traditions. Different countries have their own icon for Christmas, for some, it’s their own personalized Christmas tree and mistletoe, but in the Philippines, it is the ‘parol’–the traditional legendary symbol of Filipino Christmas.

Meaning of ‘parol’ among Filipinos

During the Christmas season, the iconic star lantern is displayed hanging outside the houses, buildings, and along the busy streets of the cities, provincial towns and even small villages. For Filipinos, it is somewhat associated with the star of Bethlehem which served as a guide during the nativity of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, hanging it on the house is a representation that you are one with the birth of our GOD, hence making it an expression of shared faith and hope for Filipinos.

Tracing the history of ‘parol’

Early September, the streets of Pampanga light up as artisans and vendors have already lined and peddle on city streets with their countless festive lanterns on display.

Over the years, the colorful and gigantic ‘parols’ mesmerize the discriminating aesthetic of Filipinos. Moreover, it has begun to fascinate people from different parts of the world as some Filipinos bring a parol with them abroad, hence enabling ‘parol’ to flicker offshore. But no matter how far it would reach, its root would still remain to be traced from where it was first created. Ergo, the Christmas tradition called ‘parol’ making” is centered in the town of Pampanga.

Historically ‘parol’ came from the Spanish word ‘farol’ which means lantern. It is also once called ‘paritaan’ but has remained to be referred to as ‘parol’ up to this day.  From the name itself, you would have a hint on how long this has existed and its influence on Filipino Christmas culture. This can be traced back during the Spanish colonial period in the Philippines, When there was still no electricity in the early 1900s in the former capital of Pampanga, Bacolor,the lanterns were made to be used by the townsfolk to light the paths on their way to attend ‘Misa de Gallo’. It was said that upon arriving home, people would hang it outside their house instead of putting it away somewhere else.  According to history, the Christmas lantern was first created in 1908 by Francisco Estanislao, a salt maker from Villa de Bacolor. Originally ‘paróls’ are star-shaped lanterns that are traditionally made of several bamboo strips, colorful pieces of ‘papél de japón‘ or Japanese paper and illuminated with a candle or ‘kalburo’ (carbide).

Parol a Tradition an Art and an Ultimate Filipino Christmas Relic Christmas lantern shop as seen from the road

Evolution of ‘Parol Sampernandu’

As time goes by, the lantern evolved patterns wise. From a simple five-edged star made of paper to the lighted Capiz-shell variety. It has become more intricate, lavish and brightly lit Christmas ornament. Now it is made of small elaborate elements that are pieced together and uses glass, shells, plastics, beads, feathers, foils, metals, wood and even fiberglass. It also features bold patterns and tantalizing light displays that come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and designs.  With the improvements in the existing technology, the bigger, the better, and more complicated the lanterns were made. When electricity came to Pampanga, light bulbs replaced the candles, then later on elaborated lights has been adopted. This was followed by the introduction of dancing lights which was first manually operated with various switches then eventually the ‘rotor,’ a mechanism that allowed for the lights to play out as intended by the maker is used. Now there are more modern types of programmable Christmas parols with Flexi lights. The deviation from the architectural norms and making the ‘parol’ more sophisticated and bigger than the conventional was allegedly because of the lantern makers desire to outdo each other through good competition. Regardless that the ‘parol’ has evolved, the basic five-point star pattern remains to be the dominant design.

Parol a Tradition, an Art and an Ultimate Filipino Christmas Relic Displays of Christmas lanterns

Passing of ‘parol’ making tradition to the next generation

For the scions of lantern makers, ‘parol’ making is more than just a livelihood. This heirloom craft has been important to them as continuing in making it serves as a tribute to their ancestors. To them creating a parol comes from an artistic passion that has started from their family’s bygone generations. They remember that they owe their fame, achievement, and means of living from their lineage and thus keep the ‘parol’ making tradition alive and hopes to pass it to the next generation.  

In the early ’80s, the scions of lantern-making initiated to train others which have led the ‘new breeds’ to have their own business today. However, the community was once worried that ‘parol’ making would be a dying craft as many from the younger generation were not as skilled in creating it. To ensure that making ‘parols‘ will continue, being the giant lanterns are the pride of San Fernando, the artisans have persevered to train others. Due to their dedication and the community’s support, the number of lantern makers in the town has increased and many of those who followed their path has also changed their lives. This craft is truly unique to this town which enabled their artwork to flourish and be recognized world-class through the years. The artisans’ passion and the community’s support have defined the city’s craftsmanship and made them become the home of the giant lantern.

Parol’s globalization

This backyard industry has become sophisticated as it entices the younger generation to pay attention to meticulous details and design ‘parol’ through computer programs. With these innovations, the rise of different designs that have never been seen before in ‘parol’ making has been made possible, and this even surprises the older ones. What was used to be homespun has become complex, yet these modifications have made it durable and attractive to the local and international markets thus enabling the industry to move towards globalization. The lantern that’s twinkling in the streets of San Fernando has been sparkling not just across the archipelago but has now crossed cultures and even reached countries such as Dubai, Saipan, and Guam.

Good To Know

It is best to go for parol shopping at night. At this time you would see the lanterns lit up, and you’ll be able to choose you’re most desired design and color. 

Parol reflects the Filipino character of being creative, innovative, resourceful and jovial. It is an original and indigenous craft of the Philippines that demonstrates the perfected the artistry and quality craftsmanship of the Kapampangans. For this reason, it is just right that Pampanga earns the title of the Christmas Lantern Capital of the Philippines. More than just embellishments, the ‘parol’ is a distinct cultural representation of Filipino Christmastide.

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Happy Travels! 💛

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