The people of Pampanga in the Philippines have long been inventing dramatic folk traditions that express their festive spirit and fun-loving nature. Today, the star-shaped parol (lantern) of Pampanga is a shining symbol of Christmas and a celebrated local icon.
Words: Beverly Rodrigues Photography: Adam Lee
On a bright Sunday morning, I climb up the belfry of Angeles City’s Holy Rosary Parish, and find Brother Benjamin Espiritu II and his merry band of bell ringers getting ready to sound the heavy brass bells of the church. Advent, the season of spiritual preparation before Christmas, is around the corner, and already the Yuletide spirit fills the air.
Between deafening clangs, the young seminarian speaks of the beautiful parol, a lantern that glows as a joyous symbol of Christmas. “The parol takes the form of the Star of Bethlehem that guided the shepherds and the Magi to Christ over 2,000 years ago. When I see it, I ask myself: Am I like that star, a light that shines for Christ?”
Story of the Parol
While Angeles City is known for its serene, white lanterns, San Fernando, the capital of Pampanga, offers up a fabulous array of psychedelic parols, as well as giant ones that have to be seen to be believed.
On a quest to unearth the story of this uniquely Filipino icon, I head to the Holy Angel University for a chat with Robert Tantingco, Director of the JDN Centre for Kapampangan Studies.
According to Tantingco, the parol originated in Bacolor, and grew out of the La Naval Fiesta. An abbreviation of Nuestra Señora del Rosario de La Naval, meaning Our Lady of the Rosary of the Naval Battle, La Naval commemorates the victory of the Spaniards over a vastly superior Dutch armada in the 17th century.
“During the naval battle in the South China Sea, the Spanish ships carried the image of the Virgin Mary, and that’s how they won.” The astonishing triumph was attributed to divine intervention, declared miraculous, and celebrated with pomp in Manila, Bacolor (the former capital of Pampanga) and Angeles city.
In Bacolor, La Naval processions were grand affairs. “The neighbourhoods where the procession passed were festooned with multi-coloured lanterns, which were kept till Christmas.” Soon, the tradition evolved, and streets were illuminated using hand-carried lanterns mounted on bamboo poles.
In the early 1900s, when Pampanga’s capital shifted from Bacolor to San Fernando, many families migrated, bringing along their religious practices. During the sugar boom, the railroad that passed through, linking Manila to the north, brought new wealth. “The families living in San Fernando became prosperous, and some put their money in lanterns, which grew bigger and more elaborate. Today, some are as large as houses!”