Parol: A unique Filipino expression of the holiday spirit

by Raymund Liongson

I enjoy making parol – that iconic Filipino Christmas lantern that lights up the spirit and brings cheers in everyone during the holidays.

In the Philippines, the parol is perhaps the most common ornament displayed during the Christmas season. Parol is derived from the Spanish word farol, which means lantern or light. This unique adornment usually takes the shape of a star alluding to the Star of Bethlehem that, according to the book of Matthew in the Bible, guided the three wisemen or magi to the birth site of the baby Jesus. Some suggest that such star was a fable; others insist it was a miracle. But that is another story.

The traditional Filipino parol is a five-point star usually made of bamboo splits and covered with colorful tissue paper – which in the Philippines we loosely call “Japanese paper”. I still remember when I just arrived in Hawaii and was looking for “Japanese papers” to dress a parol I was making. No one understood what I was looking for. I was instead shown a fine lightweight material called washi, the real Japanese paper made from fibers of the gampi tree, misumata shrub, mulberry bush, bamboo, hemp, rice, and other natural fibers and which is exponentially more expensive. I later learned people here call the material tissue. But in the Philippines, you would get one to blow your nose unto.

Depending on the maker’s creativity, the shape of the parol varies from a five-point to a four-, six-, eight- or multiple-point star. It can be a flower, a snowflake, a flame, a flag, a logo, or any imaginable form. It can be made of other materials like wires, wood, cloth, cellophane, or any natural or recyclable materials. It can be lighted with incandescent bulbs or light emitting diodes (LED), powered by a battery or home electricity, steady or blinking. Advanced parol makers employ sophisticated electronic circuitry to drive the lighting to the beat of sound and music. Indeed, there is no limit to the creative expression.

Back home, many parol makers take parol-making seriously that they start to make them as early as the summer ready to be displayed in the early “-ber” months – September – which marks the beginning of the Christmas season, the longest festival in the Philippines.

The parol is not only a holiday Filipino ornament. To me, it is a product of aesthetic creativity. I have ventured making a globe parol, a nativity scene parol, a logo parol, and many others. I have experimented using old barong cloth, agricultural materials like hay, rice stalks, and grains; recycled plastic kitchen utensils like fork, spoon, and cups; bottles and jars. Once I made an animated carousel parol “powered” by heat generated from lighted candles that visually narrated the nativity story as the carousel spun. That was fun and challenging, invoking both the arts and physics. Two years ago, I made a simple five-point star using scrap materials around the home like Manila rope, fallen stalk of Manila palm flower, old Christmas balls, Christmas lights, and a miniature clay nativity scene. It was a combination of organic and synthetic materials. Yes, the traditional can blend with the contemporary just as the old works well with the new.

This year, I made a five-foot tall parol out of plastic hangers, plastic ties, cellophane, colored tissue papers, Christmas lights, and other scrap materials lying around at home. I observed the behavior of the lights and positioned the bulbs accordingly. (See figure 2.) It was almost a weeklong project. Like in other parol-making endeavors, concept, aesthetics, design and structure, and wild and crazy imagination are a key ingredient. I made the parol primarily as my sister’s gift to the Kahuku Catholic Church where she goes and volunteers – not as a contest entry. But it was judged first place, anyway. It now proudly adorns the façade of the St. Roch & St. Joachim Church in Kahuku.

As we culminate 2020, a year rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and a heated and divisive presidential election, let us embrace the spirit of Christmas and the holidays and let the light beaming from every parol give us hope for a brighter new year.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and a Promising New Year!

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