Starstruck (Parol – the Filipino Christmas Lantern)

Put Up A Parol and Let the Light Of Christmas Shine

A Filipino vendor selling Parols.

A Filipino vendor selling Parols. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Philippines, Christmas commences when the stars come out.  Not heavenly bodies or celebrities, although we also have our fair share of those, but the colorful, star-shaped lanterns that start adorning every street and household once the “ber” months begin.  The Americans and Europeans might have their snowmen, holly wreaths, and Christmas trees, and we like those symbols too, but only we have the parol.

Years ago, whenever one went Parol-shopping, we used to be limited only to the traditional bamboo sticks and papel de hapon, and the simple five-pointed star shape.  But these days, Parols are crafted from all kinds of materials, from durable plastic to delicate capiz, and come in all sorts of designs, from intricate flowers to jolly Santas.  The common factor among this extensive variety of lanterns is that they all feature some way to allow light to shine through them or illuminate them from within, in order to achieve the glowing, Christmassy look that we all look forward to every year.

During this season, any Christian home without a parol or any form of decoration is thought to look sad, barren, and unwelcoming.  These sentiments impel families to go all out in decking their houses with ornaments and lights, fuelling a friendly rivalry among neighbors to outdo each other in displaying their depth of Christmas spirit.  At night, when the lights start to sparkle, entire streets are transformed into shimmering wonderlands.  Who needs snow when you’ve got lightbulbs?

The provinces of Pampanga and Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon are famous for their lantern-making industries.  The ongoing efforts of this community of craftsmen have sustained an annual competition for the grandest parol.  These prizewinning lanterns feature complex mechanized parts and choreographed lighting schemes, with price tags reaching millions of pesos.  Smaller versions of these elaborate creations may be bought at the numerous stalls along the highway, or throughout the city, or even in the malls and department stores.  But many Filipinos travel all the way to these provinces in order to stock up on their renowned products at the best prices.

Some parols serve a greater purpose besides mere ornamentation.  By purchasing a lantern, you can also help contribute to the funds of a worthy project.  Multi-colored cardboard stars, with translucent cutouts that impart a stained glass effect, are being made and sold by the Kababaihan Ng Maynila Foundation, a livelihood project of the City Of Manila.  Along the Roxas Baywalk can also be found a group of stalls selling parols and other Christmas ornaments and light fixtures who are also beneficiaries of another of the City Of Manila’s livelihood programs.  And elsewhere, many other handicrafts are available for sale whose profits go to supporting a range of worthy charities and foundations.  This way, you can observe the spirit of Christmas twice over, by spreading the good cheer through lively decorations, and also by contributing to a good cause.

A Parol

A Parol (Photo credit: magandafille)

In the parol, we Filipinos have found another way for us to express our creativity, ingenuity, and religious fervor.  Combining indigenous materials and distinctive designs has produced a uniquely Filipino art form not to be found anywhere else in the world.  The lights of the parol also take us back to that one day, when a star shone brightly in the sky, guiding all those who sought a child to give him their devotion.  They are eye-catching reminders of what we are really celebrating and why we should be merry.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved,  first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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