By Norman Sison,VERA Files
Hundreds troop to the Antipolo Cathedral in Antipolo City for the 8 p.m. mass, one of the many of marathon masses held in Catholic churches across the Philippines, celebrating Christmas. Flickering at the entrance are three Christmas lanterns in the shape of a star, known locally as parols.
Meanwhile, about five kilometers away, a store along a highway sells parols with electronic lights, providing passing motorists with a kaleidoscope of colors.
Christmas in the Philippines is never complete without the parol (from the Spanish word “farol”, meaning “lantern”). Take away the Christmas tree, wreath, mistletoe, and Santa Claus and his reindeer – but leave the parol – it would still be a season of good cheer.
“As a Filipino, yes, I must agree that a typical Filipino home isn't complete without the parol. It is uniquely Filipino by nature,” says Angelica Paz, a supervisor at the Department of Trade and Industry.
For blogger Tess Tan, it is part of the Christmas story. “The Star of Bethlehem is the light that guided the wise men to Jesus. It symbolizes that the Lord is our guidance in the middle of darkness.”
Parol-making is a popular elementary school project. “You get your Japanese paper, your bamboo sticks and rubber bands and voila, you get a passing score,” recalls Eric Gutierrez, a specialist in a restaurant company. “The rich kids would cheat their way by buying nice big parols and get nice grades. Grumble for me.”
In some places, the parol is not only a seasonal livelihood, but also a tourism attraction. Each year, San Fernando City in Pampanga province stages the Giant Lantern Festival, in which parols stretch up to 20 feet across and are paraded on flatbed trucks.
Thanks to the Filipino diaspora, the parol has also settled abroad. In Austria, the lanterns are an attraction at the Wiener Christkindlmarkt or Vienna Christmas Market.
For Filipinos working abroad and enduring Christmas away from family, the parol helps combat the loneliness. “While I was overseas, it was the parol, not the Christmas tree or mistletoe, that gave me hope and reminded me of home,” says Gutierrez.
The Antipolo Cathedral, a major pilgrimage site for Catholics.The traditional parol is made of bamboo strips and papél de japón or Japanese paper, with two decorative tails. Today, the materials range from metal, capiz shells, glass, plastic, LED lights, wood and just about anything that can be used artistically. The imagination is the only limit. Roadside stores selling electric lanterns even have a “parol repair service”.
Today’s parols try to outdo each other in design. But for some Filipinos, there is still beauty in the simplicity of the traditional.
“The parol is a reminder of Christmases past from my childhood. As a child I used to watch my dad create a big, beautiful lantern out of bamboo sticks, papél de japón and cellophane a few weeks before Christmas,” says ABS-CBN news executive Ging Reyes.
Filipinos know that celebrating Christmas is a legacy of Spanish colonial rule, which made the Philippines one of two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia (the other being Timor Leste). Most are unaware, however, that the parol found its way from Spain to the Philippines via Mexico.
Thanks to Spain, Mexicans celebrate Christmas almost the same way Filipinos do – complete with the Misa de Gallo, Noche Buena, Las Posadas (Mexican equivalent of the Panunuluyan in the Philippines) and other traditions.
The Mexican Christmas is not complete without the farol. “Los faroles are essential in the decorations, especially the farol with the shape of the Star of Bethlehem, as the Posadas are based on Joseph and Mary's pilgrimage,” explains Elvira Espinosa, Arizona-based Mexican-American journalist. “Here, in the U.S., is very hard to find faroles, but I try to decorate my home Mexico style: the Nativity, crowns and a lot of poinsettias to pay tribute to my roots, culture and traditions.”
Filipinos would think of Spain and the United States when asked about Philippine history. Mexico is only an afterthought even though the Spanish governor-general in Manila answered to the viceroy in Mexico, then known as New Spain. And then there was the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade that lasted 250 years. The statue of the Virgin Mary at the Antipolo Cathedral, venerated as Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buen Viaje (Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage), came from Mexico on a galleon.
Mexico is on Filipinos’ mental radar only when boxing champ Manny Pacquiao faces a Mexican opponent or when singer Jessica Sanchez makes a performance. However, the Philippines is much closer to Mexico historically and culturally than most Filipinos think.
“In many respects the Philippines has more in common with countries like Mexico or Guatemala than it does with Laos or Myanmar. However, the reality is that it is physically and politically part of Southeast Asia,” writes American professor Gerald Fry in the Thai newspaper The Nation.
But regardless of where the parols come from, no matter the millions of designs and explosions of colors, they all have one thing in common: what they symbolize. Sums up architect Gelin Ganio: “The parol is hope that reminds us that God is always there no matter what struggles and pain we are facing in our life.”
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)