The City of SAN FERNANDO, Pampanga

 by Ivan Anthony S. Henares


Most only see the finished product. The dynamic interplay of lights and color that precisely moves with the rhythm of a brass band, the magnitude of size and their intricate designs, and so much more which spectators only get to appreciate as the giant lanterns of San Fernando are pitted against each other on festival night. No one can dispute the fact that the Giant Lantern Festival of San Fernando is the event that the province of Pampanga is most known for. And it is sad that we rarely acknowledge the tremendous preparation and investment the makers put in each of these giant lanterns.  It is because of these giant lanterns and the San Fernando lantern-making industry that the City of San Fernando has been dubbed the "Christmas Capital of the Philippines."


It is one of the trades that are undisputedly Kapampangan. Lantern making first began in the town of San Fernando during the early part of this century. What distinguish the San Fernando lantern from the ordinary parol are the intricate designs and the illusion of dancing lights, which highlight the vibrant colors of the lantern.

 The Christmas lantern can never be distanced from the town which created it, the City of San Fernando.  It is what San Fernando is known for.  And it is what has made the city famous all over the country and even around the world.  Such a creation however, did not come without the untiring efforts of San Fernando’s citizens, and more so, their creativity and innovation.  And it is because of the Christmas lantern that San Fernando has earned for itself the title of “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.”  And to truly appreciate the colorful and intricate display of lights, one must understand its deep history and the strong traditions involved in the creation of the San Fernando Giant Lantern.


The San Fernando lantern industry evolved from the Giant Lantern Festival of San Fernando.  The festival, which is held every December, finds its roots in Bacolor where a much simpler activity was held. Following the transfer of the provincial capital from Bacolor to San Fernando in August of 1904, this parul event followed as well.  "Ligligan Parul" was said to have started in San Fernando in the year 1904.  But some say that the "Ligligan Parul" did not happen immediately after the transfer and in fact began in 1908. 

This predecessor of the modern day Giant Lantern Festival was actually a religious activity which we know today as “lubenas.” The lanterns measured just two feet in diameter, a far cry from the fifteen feet that we see today. These were created in each barrio from bamboo and other locally available materials. During the nine-day novena before Christmas, which coincided with the simbang gabi from December 16 to 24, these paruls were brought around each barrio in procession to their visita. Before the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the lanterns were brought to the town church together with the barrio patrons. 

This tradition gradually evolved as the lanterns became bigger and the designs more intricate. Later, one big lantern was made for each barrio, which was created through a cooperative effort. Each resident contributed to its construction, from the concept and design, to the materials and labor. In the end, these lanterns became a symbol of unity for the barrios. 

It was in the year 1931 that electricity was introduced to the San Fernando lantern, thus sparking the birth of the first Giant Lantern Festival. The added illusion of dancing lights highlighted the bright colors and intricate designs of these Giant Lanterns. At this time, the lights were controlled by individual switches that were turned on and off following the beat of the music. The barangays of Del Pilar, Sta. Lucia and San Jose were among the first barangays to participate in the festival.  

According to another version claimed by old folks, the Giant Lantern Festival started during the time of President Manuel L. Quezon.  At that time, President Quezon was trying to make Pampanga a model province.  In fact, Quezon made Arayat his resting place and converted the legendary Mount Arayat into a tourist resort.  As a show of gratitude to Quezon, the people of San Fernando held a Christmas lantern contest to honor the first family.  Quezon himself donated the prize for this lantern contest, which was personally awarded to the winner by First Lady Aurora Aragon Quezon. 


In years that followed, more innovations were introduced to the giant lanterns. Colored plastic replaced the traditional papel de hapon. Large steel barrels called rotors also substituted the hand-controlled switches to manipulate the lights. Strips of masking tape on these rotors determine the sequence of the switching on and off of the lights. 

The technology of the rotor is quite simple. Hairpins, attached to the end of the wires leading to each individual bulb, connect the lights to the rotor, which in turn, is connected to the source of electricity. Strips of masking tape are placed on the metal rotor to serve as light switches.  As the rotor is turned, the hairpins pass through the strips of masking tape. When a certain hairpin hits a strip of masking tape, the current to a specific set of bulbs is temporarily cut thus switching off that particular set of bulbs. When that particular hairpin regains contact with the steel barrel, the bulbs are again lit. Thus, the placement of the masking tape on the rotors determines the interplay of lights on the lanterns and can spell success or disaster for each entry. 

Thinking about it, one needs a lot of creativity and technical know-how in designing a giant lantern. It is not as easy as getting a pen and paper and drawing a symmetrical design. As the giant lantern maker visualizes his design, he also has to take into consideration the interplay of lights and colors. And just to illustrate the magnitude of difficulty, the designer should be able to picture when each of the 3,500 light bulbs should go on and off.  And just to stress, no computers are involved in the interplay of lights.  Everything is done manually, yet the result produced by the lantern makers of San Fernando can even rival light effects done by computers.  

The design, however, is just a part of the actual labor involved in the creation of a giant lantern. Once this has been finalized, the lantern makers weld together a steel frame, which follows the design itself. This is the first step in the actual construction of the giant lantern. The frame is then lined with cardboard and foil. This is followed by another monumental task, placing the over 3,000 light bulbs in their proper places and wiring them up together. Even an expert electrical engineer would go crazy while working on this intricate network composed of hundreds of yards of electrical wires. 

The wires are then connected to the rotors. And let me stress rotors with an "s" since barangays have to change the interplay of lights with each tune. In fact, some barangays even use as much as eight to ten of these steel barrels for variety in movement. Finally, there is of course the plastic covering, which is cut and shaped precisely to fit each section. 

The Giant Lantern Festival is an inter-barangay contest. In past festivals, it really was a barangay effort and the best lantern makers of the barangay were called on to create the entry to the competition. During that time, each participating barangay had resident lantern makers. However, as the years passed, many of these lantern makers were unable to pass on the trade. Today, only Del Pilar, Sta. Lucia, Dolores and San Jose can boast of resident lantern makers. So to keep the show on the road, other barangays have to rely on lantern makers from other localities. 

One of these commissioned giant lantern makers is Ernesto D. Quiwa of Barangay Sta. Lucia. Although from Sta. Lucia, he has actually created lantern entries for other barangays. During the 2000 Giant Lantern Festival, Mang Erning created the entry for Barangay San Nicolas, which was adjudged the over-all champion for that year. His creations have in fact won the over-all honors in previous years including 1974, 1982, and a three-peat from 1993 to 1995. For the 2001 lantern competition, he again made the one for San Nicolas.  In fact, aside from Sta. Lucia's own entry and the entry of San Nicolas, it is said that two other lantern entries were being made in the same barangay. 


The Giant Lantern Festival was not held continuously since its conception in 1931.  The tradition died out as a result of Martial Law.  In 1978, San Fernando Mayor Armando Biliwang decided to forego with the festival because of the high cost of producing a lantern.  But more so was the fact that curfews had to be observed.  

In 1979, the different barangays who were regulars in the competition clamored for its return.  "Sayang lamang," said Gilbert Paras of Barangay Dolores who manufactured the lantern annually.  "Not so much because of the thousands of pesos in prizes but more so of the popularity that the seasonal industry of lantern making had been receiving out of the town," he added.  

It was in 1980 that Governor Estelito Mendoza and then acting mayor Amante S. Bueno revived the tradition.   There were however constraints to the festival.  In 1982, Mayor Vicente Macalino decided that the lanterns should not exceed eleven feet in diameter but not less than ten feet.  These austerity measures may have been in place as a sign of the times.  But despite the trying times, eight barangays entered the competition that year.   


Back in 1988, Mr. Antonio Castro, then a 64-year old native of Barangay Dolores, recalled the time when the time for the construction of the giant lanterns arrived.  His family had been involved in lantern making since 1939 and these were very happy occasions.  It was not just a family effort but also a barrio effort.  "We paid no one, everybody worked in the spirit of bayanihan." 

In 1991, the Giant Lantern Festival was almost postponed in sympathy for those who were left homeless and jobless due to the Mount Pinatubo eruption.  But Mayor Paterno Guevarra said "the people in the town said that it was not the right thing to do because people might think that San Fernando is likewise crippled and investments may not come in."  To Fernandinos, the Giant Lantern Festival was thus a sign of strength amidst the calamity that had just struck.  Guevarra added, "Besides, it is a tradition and we cannot disappoint our friends who come a long way to see our famous lanterns.  It was also an opportunity to utilize tourism potentials of Pampanga and hasten the rehabilitation in areas devastated by the eruption.”   

Six giant lanterns entered the competition that year.  The seventh lantern, that of the defending champion Barangay Del Pilar, was disqualified from the competition for exceeding the maximum allowable size, to the disappointment of the barangay officials.  They were instead entered as an exhibition lantern.  But the spirit of giant lantern making still lived on.  As according to Del Pilar Kagawad Francisco Peczon, "Mahirap talaga gumawa (ng giant lantern), at tunay na magastos pero ok lang sa amin iyon kasi naging tradisyon na at parang hindi kumpleto and Pasko kapag hindi kami nakagawa niyan."  For the recently concluded 2001 Giant Lantern Festival, Barangay Del Pilar went home with the top honors. 

With all that discussion on the creation of a giant lantern, one realizes that just by looking at the many materials and the amount of effort put into each lantern, that would of course not be possible without any incurred costs. And the expenses are definitely not loose change and are said to reach almost P200,000 for each of these giant lanterns. So where do the participating barangays get their funds? 

Being the most popular festival in Pampanga and world-renowned at that, no one can blame the City Government of San Fernando for putting so much value on the Giant Lantern Festival. It in fact provides the funding for most of the expenses of each lantern as it has done so in previous competitions.  The administration of Dr. Rey B. Aquino gives its full support for this festival.  And according to Mayor Aquino, for the year 2001 festival, the City Government released P70,000 for each barangay which entered the competition. San Fernando is simply living up to its well-earned name as the unmatched "Christmas Capital of the Philippines."   

Also back in 1991, the Department of Tourism gave a subsidy of P25,000 to each lantern.  However, that subsidy is no longer given to the lantern makers of San Fernando.  In 1982, the cost of an 11-foot lanterns was only P14,000.  And contributions came in from different sectors of San Fernando.  The local government headed by Mayor Macalino shelled P5,000, and Rotary International gave in P2,000.  In 1984, the municipal government under Mayor Virgilio L. Sanchez released P20,000 for each lantern.  In the 1988 competition, the municipal government of Mayor Pat Guevarra shelled out a P55,000 subsidy for each lantern.  The increasing subsidies are a sign of the times.  But they also illustrate the unyielding fervor of Fernandinos to continue the festival despite the increasing costs of production. 

And just like the festivals today, barangay officials are left to solicit the remaining amount which the subsidy did not cover.  But many residents in the barangay are too willing to shell out money from their own pockets just to continue the tradition.   

The subsidies may not be enough to cover all the expenses in creating the giant lanterns, nor are the rewards.  Winners simply receive some prize money and a trophy.  But that is not important to the barangays who join the festival.  And according to many of the lantern makers, "kahit nga walang contest ay gagawa kami niyan." 


During the early years of the Giant Lantern Festival, people were only able to see these works of art, innovation and technology during the contest night itself.  According to Mr. Eddie Garcia, barangay secretary of Dolores in 1988, the San Fernando lanterns were done on a commission basis. And they were only made by the elders of the community. But some lantern-makers decided to make smaller versions for display in their own homes.  This of course attracted the attention not only within the town but with other people as well.  People who thus passed by San Fernando wanted to have a San Fernando lantern for their own homes in Manila.  This sparked the beginning a new industry in Pampanga. 

Seeing the business potential, younger people joined the lantern-making process.  After learning the basics, they put up their own stalls along the roadside.  It is said that the famous San Fernando lantern was made available to the public in 1964.  Lantern makers began marketing this product outside the town by displaying these in various gas stations and delicacy centers in Metro Manila. The fascination for the lantern soon spread around the country and thus made San Fernando known for this trade. 

Lantern making thus became a family trade passed on from generation to generation.  There were about seventeen families known to make giant lanterns.  They included the Garcias, Castros, Parases, Carreons, Capatis and Mendozas. 

Many people claim the credit for being the first to commercialize the San Fernando lantern-making trade.  In Barangay San Jose, the Tiongson couple, Eddie and Maritel, claims the distinction.  They began by making a few to decorate their store "Bahay Pasalubong" in San Matias, Sto. Tomas.  To their surprise, most of their customers inquired where they got the lanterns and were offering to buy them.  Taking a cue from these inquiries, the Tiongsons assembled their barriomates in San Jose and began a modest trade that eventually grew.  Jesus Maglalang was their head lantern maker.  

There is in fact so much export potential for this product as the fascination for this unique display of lights is universal and is much appreciated around the world. In fact, San Fernando giant lanterns have graced many international events such as the 75th Anniversary of the Philippine-Hawaii Commission way back in 1979, the Kutnitchiwa Asian Fair in Yokohama, Japan (1989) and the World Expo in Seville, Spain (1992) among others. But the most notable of these appearances was during the Hollywood Christmas Parade of 1993 where the San Fernando lantern adorned the Philippine float entry to the parade. The Philippine float won top honors for that year.   


Ironically, the older lantern makers say that the San Fernando lantern making trade is actually dying. They blame it on the introduction of new materials like capis and Christmas lights. If you happen to pass by the Gapan-Olongapo Road or MacArthur Highway during the Christmas season evenings, you would notice so many new types of lanterns on display, most of which look so ordinary and at times, tasteless.  Because of the introduction of these ordinary capis parols in San Fernando, the real San Fernando lanterns have to compete with these other decors you can find anywhere in the country. 

By introducing these lanterns that are not uniquely Fernandino, the lantern makers fail to realize that they are gradually killing the trade.  In the future, gone will be the days of the flashing interplay of lights, vibrant colors and intricate designs, when the San Fernando lantern may just be reduced to a thing of the past. 


It is a work of love and full of passion.  How simple technology can produce such an advanced technological interplay of lights is still a marvel for many who watch the Giant Lantern Festival year in and year out.  The San Fernando giant lantern is a product of Kapampangan innovation, creativity and tireless effort.  It is this innovation and creativity among Fernandinos that earned for the City of San Fernando, Pampanga, the moniker “Christmas Capital of the Philippines.”  So the next time you witness their spectacular display of lights and color, do appreciate the hard work put into each of these works of art that can be considered truly Fernandino, truly Kapampangan.


For more information, visit the website of the City of San Fernando

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