Christmas is always around the corner for the residents of San Fernando. Recognized as the yule capital of the Philippines, the city harbors a cadre of craftsmen whose lineage dates back over a century, to 1908, when Francisco Estanislao first made a giant lantern 10 feet in diameter.
Today, visitors lose themselves in a babel of color emanating from 20-foot Christmas lanterns, called parols, whose lights swirl, wriggle, and twirl, as if buoyed by the jubilant mood of the season. Thousands make the yearly trek 64 kilometers north of the capital city, Manila, to delight in the show of lights. And behind the glow: the impressive craftsmanship of analog light shows.
A giant parol is much like the human body. Like bones and sinew, a steel frame dictates its structure. The spaces within the frame form honeycomb-like compartments, which are lined with cardboard and foil.
Within these cavities, as many as ten bulbs of various colors jostle for space, adding up to a minimum of 3,000 in every parol. All bulbs must be cleaned and tested—a seven-week task. Once the bulbs are positioned in their designated compartments, each is wired—another two weeks.
A tangle of electric lines snake from each bulb to converge at the rotor, ending in metal tines that connect to a generator. The parol’s face conceals the wiring, dotted with colorful pieces of paper cut in a mosaic pattern inspired by the traditional batik motif prevalent in southern Philippines.
The rotor is the brain of the parol. Invented by Rodolfo David in 1957, it’s what allows the lantern to dance in endless combinations of light and color. Rotors are large metal cylinders, similar to those found in music boxes. But instead of embossed pinpoints, these rotors have a smooth surface covered in careful patterns of masking tape.
“When they first started using rotors, they just used the gallon-sized can of paint for rotors,” said Ernesto Quiwa, a descendant of the pioneer maker, Estanislao; he’s the fourth generation to enter into the family trade. Nowadays, rotors have more in common with 55-gallon metal cans—and the caliber of the show has grown with it.
The magic begins when the finished rotor is cranked. As the tines at the end of each bulb hit strategically cut sections of tape, the circuit is closed. Electricity flows to the bulbs, lighting as many as 50 different patterns that dance to the beat of live music. Different rotors mean new beats and ever-changing patterns.
“The longest a parol operates is 10 minutes,” explains Arnel Flores, a relatively young lantern maker at 41 years old. “Think about it. Each light is 50 watts, and there are 10,000 bulbs on average. That’s a lot of volts, and soon, the parol gets too hot.” As many as ten different rotors are switched out for each performance to ensure cooling.
A parol’s soul undoubtedly lies in the lantern maker. Construction takes about two months and a team of ten. But months before, the concept forms in the mind of the maker. Without computers, he sketches out a complex symmetrical design that takes into account thousands of bulbs.
“While I design, I’m like a crazy person singing,” says Efren Tiodin, a lanky 53-year-old lantern maker who started out building small, commercial lanterns at age 13. “I try to get the light patterns synched to the beat of the music.”
Such single-minded dedication is why San Fernando has become the hotbed of the craft. Each lantern is the pride of one of the nine barrios participating in the city’s yearly Giant Lantern Festival.“When you say ‘San Fernando’, you immediately think ‘parol’,” says Tiodin. Quiwa adds that giant parols can sometimes be found in other provinces, but the lantern maker inevitably hails from San Fernando.
Like many things in the Philippines, the now-secular festival has its roots in the Spanish-era Catholic practice of lubenas during the when humble two-foot lanterns were then held aloft during street processions the nine straight nights before Christmas. As time went on and electricity was introduced, the lanterns became larger and more grandiose.
The festival is now a more secular affair. The provincial government offers as much as USD 3,000 in subsidies to each barrio, though costs to create a truly magnificent piece can run up to USD 20,000, says Flores. A competition determines the top three entries, which could win up to USD 3,000. The winnings are quickly funneled into the next year’s entry.
The cost is secondary, says Flores. What is more important is the chance to win honor for the barrio. But more pragmatically, the ostentatious display of engineering genius cements San Fernando’s position in the Christmas-lantern-making industry.Lantern makers frequently design large-scale in-store displays for supermarket chains in the Philippines. Orders for smaller lanterns come in from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom.
The skills of lantern makers are so prized that they are often called upon to design similar displays for exhibition abroad. Quiwa has showcased his work at the 1992 world’s fair in Seville, Spain and on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. With so much pride embroiled in the craft, it’s no wonder that competitive spirits run high each year.
As I toured each workshop, the finished parols were shrouded under heavy tarpaulin away from prying eyes. Each lantern maker oh-so-casually peppered me with questions of his own. How far along were the other barrios? What did I think of the other entries? Did they plan to use any new materials? But after all that, Quiwa dismisses his pointed questions, chalking it up to friendly competition. “Among us lantern makers, who finally wins doesn’t really matter. As long as we all get to participate, it’s like our Christmas is finally complete.”