What's on: Pampanga's giant lantern festival

Head to San Fernando, Pampanga for a parade of giant Christmas lanterns lit up by a thousand lights

San Fernando Pampanga's giant lantern
Christmas time in San Fernando, Pampanga is celebrated with the famous giant lantern festival, a parade of up to 10 giant parols or Christmas lanterns that has put this province north of Manila, firmly on the Philippine Christmas map. 

 This year, the festival will be held on December 19, at 6pm at Robinsons Starmills. About 50,000 people witness the parade each year, a real feast for the senses, with the multicolored lanterns lighting up the night sky.

The parol, taken from the Spanish word farol, is a Christmas lantern that graces many Filipino homes, symbolic of the Star of Bethlehem that revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to the Biblical Magis and led them to Bethlehem.To most Filipinos, the parol epitomizes Christmas just as much as the Christmas tree. Traditional parols are simple five-pointed stars. Others are ornate, taking the form of the rose, the bromeliad, snowflakes, and the sea urchin. The colors range from elegant white to a variety of other solid colors, to multi-colored and psychedelic. Materials are also varied, from crepe paper to plastic to capiz shells.

For the “real parol”, however, no one can beat San Fernando, Pampanga.

Final touches for the festival. By Jundio Salvador
San Fernando is home to the country’s best parol makers. Parol making as a craft is taken so seriously here that every year some 10 barangays would parade like a badge of honor about 10 giant lanterns – some standing as high as a two-storey building – each lit by anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 light bulbs, blinking in time to music.

Painstakingly installing lights on this massive lantern

It is said that it takes about a year and some 50 workers to build one of these giant parols, which has a minimum diameter of 16 feet to 18 feet. Building cost ranges from P200,000 (about US$4,700) to P400,000. Upon completion, the giant parol usually weight about 1,000 kilograms. During the festival, these parols are carried by six-by-six trucks down the streets of San Fernando and past the chosen site where judges for the competition eagerly watch and assess each giant lantern entry. Since 2008, Robinson Starmills Pampanga has been the venue.

Six-by-six trucks carry the giant parols down the streets of San Fernando to take them to the festival site. By Raphael Kalaw

To help sustain the festival tradition, the city government grants yearly subsidies to participants in the festival. This year the city government has allocated P180,000 to the giant lantern makers, while the provincial government has given P100,000 to each participating barangay (city village). Eleven participants signed up for this year’s festival. The grand champion will get to take home P150,000 cash prize, while the second, third and fourth placer get to take home P100,000, P75,000 and P50,000, respectively.

So why does the barangay spend all that money? San Fernando's lantern-making history sprang from this festival tradition. The festival fuels the people’s pride in their craft and establishes Pampanga’s reputation as a major lantern maker. Pampanga lanterns have graced many international events and take pride of place in the hearts of Kapampangans. The lanterns were showcased in the 75th anniversary of the Philippine-Hawaii Commission (1979), the Kunitchiwa Asian Fair in Yokohama, Japan (1989), the World Expo in Seville, Spain (1992), and the Hollywood Christmas Parade (1993) which saw the Philippine float adorned with a San Fernando lantern win top honors.

For those who would like to have a piece of that Pampanga craftsmanship, smaller lanterns for the home are also sold in San Fernando and nearby towns. A concentration of retailers in San Fernando can be found on Jose Abad Santos Avenue and Barangay Dolores along McArthur Highway. The capiz-shell five-pointed lantern is a favorite among Filipino overseas residents. Depending on material and size, lanterns sell from P500. Capiz lanterns are from P800 to P3,500, while fiberglass lanterns are from P2,500 to P6,500.

The ligligan parul will be held on December 19. The lantern competition proper starts at 6pm. For further information, contact the San Fernando City, Pampanga tourism office on Facebook.

History of lantern making in San Fernando
Lantern making was said to have sprung from the observance of religious traditions in Bacolor, Pampanga during the Spanish period, although there’s no exact recorded date. It is widely believed that it started some time in 1904. Others put the date closer to 1908. Bacolor paraded its patron saints for nine days in processions called luvenas, a corrupted word for novenas. People walked the streets following the statues of patron saints while singing Hail Mary in Spanish. They carried candles to light their way but soon found this was an encumbrance because the wind would often blow out the candles. To solve this problem, the locals used paper to cover the candle and keep the light protected from the wind. This was the beginning of what was to be our intricate lanterns. The first lantern was called tambol tambulan because of its round shape, similar to a tambol (percussion instrument). The candle was still used as light source. The following years, the locals started decorating the tambol tambulan by covering it with colored papers. During the American occupation in the 1890s, battery was brought in and electricity was introduced. Sometime in the 1860s, local folks developed a switchboard, which Kapampangans called the kalakati. Kalakati is a piece of iron that lights a bulb of a lantern when connected to a nail. This was followed by the use of rotor to light a lantern bulb. The rotor is made of round wood, clay and pin.

How to get there. San Fernando is about a one-and-a-half hour’s drive from Manila via the North Luzon Expressway. You can also get a bus at Victory Liner  (Victory Liner bus station is in Cubao) and get off the San Fernando bus terminal from where you can take a jeep, tricycle or cab to get to places around town.

Where to stay. Holiday Inn resort on Mimosa Drive, Mimosa Leisure Estate, Clarkfield, Pampanga is one of the most established hotels in and around Clark in Pampanga, which is about 20 to 30 minutes away from San Fernando. It’s nestled within a leisure estate with a golf course and a casino. Published rate for a standard room, deluxe, is P6,786 plus 10% service charge for an overnight stay with breakfast for two. Call +632 845 1888.

—By Monica De Leon. Information on the history of lantern making in San Fernando courtesy of Rolan Quiambao, one of the long time lantern makers of San Fernando, and former president of the Lantern Makers Association of San Fernando.  

Originally published in InFlight Traveller December 2005-January 2006. Updated December 2015