Giant Lantern Festival is an annual Christmastime festival held in the city of San Fernando, Pampanga, Philippines from every December 17 to January 1 of the next year. It is also called Ligligan Parul, which is a Kapampangan phrase that means lantern contest or lantern showdown.
Considered an intangible cultural heritage, the festival is both an exhibit as well as a competition of huge decorative Christmas lanterns kitted out with thousands of dancing lights which are the official entries of the barangays (the smallest political unit in the Philippines) of the city. Due to its colorful history and popularity, the lantern-making industry that sprang from it, its use of locally available materials, and generations of lantern-makers displaying creativity and innovation in their craft, the festival has made the city of San Fernando the Christmas capital of the Philippines and the home of giant lanterns.
History of Giant Lantern Festival
The origin of Giant Lantern Festival is traced to Bacolor, once the capital of the province of Pampanga, when devout Catholics brought lanterns during procession of the images of patron saints.
In 1904, the capital was moved to San Fernando. There are some claims that along with the said transfer went the lantern tradition, although a consensus seems to indicate that the festival in San Fernando was started by Francisco Estanislao years later in 1908.
It is said that its roots began with people observing a religious practice called lubenas, itself a tradition that came from novenas. Prayers were said for nine days leading up to the birth of Jesus on Christmas day. Its schedule began in the 16th of December and ended in the 24th, a period of time that also coincided with another Filipino tradition called simbang gabi where they hear mass at the crack of dawn every day in preparation for Christmas.
During lubenas, devotees participated in foot procession that culminated in the chapel or hermitage of each barangay, their way illuminated by lanterns called parul in the local language. A number of parul were strung in poles made of bamboo that would go along with the carriage carrying the patron saint of the barangay, and another bigger parul that represented the barangay was positioned in the rear.
On Christmas eve, people brought these parul in the town center for the lantern competition and prizes were given to winners.
The advent of electricity in 1931 paved the way for Giant Lantern Festival which was conducted as a toast to Manuel L. Quezon who sponsored the cash prizes. Previously, parul were lit with candles or carbide lamps. With electric power, it was possible to light them without running out of wax or fuel. Instead, lanterns relied on battery or generators.
Bulbs could be manipulated to turn off or on that give rise to a visual spectacle of dancing lights particularly when they were well-timed in sync with music. This is made possible through a rotor made of steel barrel with creative placement of insulators (such as a masking tape) that inhibit the conduction of electricity, and thus switching off a bulb, at a specific timing.
The festival embraced the pace of technology too with computerized controls being introduced in later years. Lanterns grew bigger in size and their designs became more intricate. The traditional five-pointed star design gave way to other shapes.
In place of wood in their making were frames made out of metal, and instead of Japanese papers (colloquially referred to as papel de hapon) were sheets of colored plastic or capiz shells.
The yearly Giant Lantern Festival is organized by Giant Lantern Festival Foundation and the city government of San Fernando. It is a competition participated by barangays. Each of them submits a lantern-entry which are judged according to their light sequencing, sync with the music, and overall design. These lanterns are put in an exhibit that begins December 17 and ends January 2 (or in some cases a day early or later) of the succeeding year.
There were periods however that the competition was not held such as during Martial Law years and curfew was in full effect. It was held again in 1980.
When Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991 that caused widespread destruction, organizers thought of halting the fest out of respect for those who perished in the calamity; they pushed through with the event and it was mounted as a symbol of hope, resilience, and renewal.
Additionally, the competition was put on hold in the years 2020 and 2021 in order to avoid crowds amidst the coronavirus pandemic. However, some villages such as Bulaon, Calulut, San Juan, Sta. Lucia, San Nicolas, Sto. Niño, and Telabastagan chose to build and put up lanterns as a way of a toned-down observance of the cherished annual festival.
Each entry can be up to twenty feet in diameter. Making one requires tens of thousands of bulbs and kilometers-long electrical wires. The undertaking is such their creation could take an entire year and may involve dozens of people. Their fundamental design is broken down to four elements: tambur (the center), siku-siku (angled parts), palimbun (round shapes located in the edges or rim), and putentas (the enveloping layer of the entire lantern.)
More than a competition, it had become a vehicle for community spirit. Every lantern is a product of collaboration and unity within participating villages and fund-raising activities were pushed through to raise money for the creation of the entries. In some years, they received subsidies from the city government as well as from government agencies like the Department of Tourism.
From religious beginnings of Giant Lantern Festival, its contemporary lantern entries may bear secular motifs, patriotic symbols such as the colors of the national flag, and socio-political statements.
Lantern industry in Pampanga
Parul, spelled parol in Filipino language, comes from the Spanish word farol which means light or lantern. In the Philippines, it is symbolic of the biblical story of the starlit sky when Jesus was born and of the bright Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men and their retinue to the birthplace of Jesus in a lowly manger.
The parul adorns houses and establishments, hanging by the eaves and windows and doors and entryways, often accompanied with Christmas lights to usher in the yuletide season.
The lantern industry in Pampanga is an offshoot of the Giant Lantern Festival. Skilled workers were hired for the competition, and they soon created smaller copies of their creations. The sight of beautiful lanterns as home and Christmas decors whetted commercial interest. Production began in 1964 when these lanterns, called Parul Sampernandu (San Fernando Lanterns), were on display for sale.
The business of lantern-making in Pampanga is generally a family enterprise where skills are taught by the older generation to the next, so the products from over a dozen family lanter-makers in San Fernando were the most popular. In May of 2005, the Lantern Makers Association of San Fernando was organized. Then in 2011, City of San Fernando, Pampanga Lantern Makers Association (CSFP-LMA) was established.
Giant Lantern Festival Activities
Entries for Giant Lantern Festival are put up for display in various locations in the city. In the 1990s, the viewing space was in erstwhile Paskuhan Village. They’re in display at the grounds of Robinsons Starmills, the host of the fest since 2008. Then they are moved to other places like the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Fernando around Christmas time. Winners are usually announced at the start of the festival.
How to reach San Fernando City, Pampanga
The most convenient would be to take a flight to Clark International Airport and take a bus or taxi bound for the city of San Fernando. Buses that take regular trips are also available from Metro Manila.
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