Mount Arayat, which dominates the horizon of the province of Pampanga in the plains of Central Luzon, dissolved in the darkness. On the field near Robinsons Starmills mall, covered in volcanic ash from Mount Pinatubo, emerged giant disks that flashed with colors and patterns, mesmerizing people and seemingly bathing everything with their dancing lights.

During Christmas season, San Fernando City radiates with giant lanterns, drawing people from all over the Philippines and from different parts of the world.

THE winning entry from Barangay Telabastagan.

For 110 years now, the city has been holding the Giant Lantern Festival, which has become one of the biggest Christmas attractions of country.

The celebration of Christmas came to the Philippines with the introduction of Christianity by Spanish Catholic missionaries in the 16th century. The Christmas Mass was accompanied by the nine-day novena which evolved into the lubena with a procession of people carrying lanterns.

SECOND lantern design from San Jose.

Many consider 1908 as the start of the tradition of making giant lanterns through the efforts of Francisco Estanislao from the barangay of Santa Lucia. A salt-maker, Estanislao is the first recorded lantern maker who created lanterns bigger than the usual ones for the lubenas. It cannot be ascertained when the festival and lantern contest or ligligan parul began, but the earliest mention of it was in 1930 in Ing Misyonero. Several makers and designers introduced innovations to the lantern such as the use of the rotor, a cylindrical contraption that enables the lights of the lanterns to dance or turn on and off to form different patterns.

The story of the Giant Lantern Festival though is largely based on oral history, according to Ching Pangilinan, city tourism officer.

LANTERN design from San Juan which won second place.

The lanterns also grew in size and the festival transformed into a spectacular event that became known all over the country and attracted attention from the world. Now, the average size of the parul sampernandu is 20 feet in diameter, with 7,000 to 10,000 light bulbs. They are carried by trucks, which also carry the 10 or more giant rotors, manually operated to the tune of chosen music.

The skill and knowledge of the making of the giant lanterns are passed on to family and community members, usually by apprenticeship and observation. Prominent lantern makers/designers are yearly hired to create their barangays’ giant lantern entries. They are also hired by other barangays aside from their own.

About 7,000 to 10,000 light bulbs are used for each giant lantern.

This year, 11 barangays competed at the ligligan parul — San Pedro with lantern maker/designer Engelbert Bondoc; San Nicolas with Edmar David; Calulut with Teddy Aguilar; Sindalan with Arvin Quiwa; Santa Lucia with Byron Bondoc; San Juan with Mark Nino Flores; Telabastagan with Arnel Flores; Del Carmen with Karl Ernest Quiwa; Del Pilar with Rolando Quiambao; Santo Nino with Efren Tiodin; and San Jose with Maryanne Torres.

On 15 December, about 80,000 people came to watch the display on a field adjacent to Robinsons Starmills mall. The dancing of patterns on each lantern was impressive. Designs changed each second and hundreds of patterns were shown in a span of seven minutes, accompanied by music, mostly modern dance tunes. Some lanterns projected messages of peace and unity as well as devotion to Jesus Christ, aside from intricate patterns.

BARANGAY San Jose’s lantern was first runner-up in the competition.

The Telabastagan lantern emerged as champion, while San Jose was the first runner-up, San Juan the second runner-up and San Nicolas the third runner-up. It was Telebastagan’s second win in the history of the contest. The first was in 2013.

This year’s festival is a milestone because it saw its first woman lantern maker/designer entering the contest. Torres, whose entry was the first runner-up, also comes from a family of lantern makers.

The festival program also took time to honor posthumously two master lantern makers/designers, Mario Datu of Barangay Del Pilar, who died in 1996 and mentored prominent makers Efren Tiodin and Rolando Quiambao; and Jesus Maglalang. Both introduced the innovation of using steel wire frames for the lanterns in 1950.

Another pattern from the barangay of Telabastagan.

The champion received a trophy and P150,000 cash prize. This is just a fraction of price of the making of the giant lantern, which can cost as much as P1 million. But for the participants, the prestige of winning and even participation is reward enough as well as the honor of contributing to a beloved tradition, which delights people.

The giant lanterns are on display from 16 December to 2 January 2019 at Robinsons Starmills and different parts of San Fernando.

Text and photos by Roel Hoang Manipon