A STAR IS BORNE
The paról has become an iconic symbol of the Filipino Christmas not only in the Philippines but all over the world where you find Filipino migrant communities. The paról is as important to Filipinos as the Christmas Tree is to Western cul tures.
A paról is an ornamental, star-shaped Christmas lantern unique to the Philip pines. It is traditionally made out of bamboo and paper and comes in various sizes and shapes, but generally the basic star pattern remains dominant. The word paról is derived from the Spanish word farol, meaning “lantern”. Another, less-known name for this and lanterns in general in the Philippines is ‘paritaán‘.
The design of the paról evokes the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to the manger. It also symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and the Filipinos’ hope and goodwill during the Christmas season.
Its annual debut on houses and streets is usually in September along with other Christmas symbols, signalling the coming of the season. The paról also retains its original association with the Simbang Gabi (Night Mass) or Misa de Gallo (Rooster Mass) ritual, a series of dawn masses that lasts for 9-days. These lanterns remain until January, traditionally removed after Epiphany, to honour the Three Kings and their visit to the child Jesus.
Many communities, such as villages, schools, and groups hold competitions to see who can make the best paról. One such event – the annual Giant Lantern Festival in Pampanga, attracts various craftsmen from all over the archipelago as well as multitudes of local and foreign tourists. The competition re volves around the illumination and performances of giant paróls that can reach up to 40 feet (12m) in breadth. These giant lanterns are made to “dance” to the accompaniment of a brass band.
The ‘invention’ of the paról, if you can call it that, is attributed to a Filipino artisan named Francisco Estanislao in 1928 who originally crafted the 5-pointed star lantern pattern. It was made of bamboo strips covered with papél de japón (Japanese paper), illuminated by a candle or kalburo (carbide). This kind of lantern was used by barrio (or province) folks to light their paths during the ritual yuletide dawn Masses during Christmas season as electricity was yet un available at the time in many remote rural areas.
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GAUDY AS GAUDI
Traditionally, paróls have a star-shaped framework made of bamboo sticks which are then covered by coloured pieces of either Japanese paper or crêpe paper. The most common form is a five-pointed star with two decorative “tails”.
These days, other materials used to construct paróls range from plastic, shells, glass, beads, foil, feathers, hemp, leaves, seeds, soft drink plastic straws, wood and even strips of metal. They usually come in various sizes, from small, tinsel and foil lanterns to more huge renditions that are electrically lit at night, and may have one, three or more tails aside from the ubiquitous two.
Some designs have a surrounding “halo” while the number of points may usually range from four to around ten. Higher numbers of tails are not unknown but they usually depart from the more familiar design and become as gaudy as those of Gaudi (or Antoni Gaudi), the Spanish Catalan architect res ponsible for designing the beautifully eclectic (but yet unfinished) grand cathedral called Sagrada Fam ilia (the Sacred Family) in Barcelona.
As for stellate patterns, more complex shapes that are seen are the rose, the bromeliad, the snowflake and the sea urchin.
BECOMING A GLOBAL FIXTURE?
Although the use of the paról as Christmas decoration is chiefly done in the country of its origin, other countries where the Filipino Diaspora have settled have now also adapted its use.
In Austria, the lanterns are a big attraction during the annual Wiener Christkindlmarkt (Vienna Christ mas Market). A ceremonial lighting of 60 paróls in a “Philippine tree” was also displayed at the Wiener Rathausplatz (Vienna City Hall square) for the first time in 2006. The project was a collaboration of the Philippine Embassy in Vienna and the city’s local government.
Across the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco, California, Filipino-Americans celebrate the Annual Paról Festival in December and in other cities and major towns across the United States Filipino-Americans bring them to churches during the Simbahang Gabi.
Further north, Filipinos residing in Canada hang paróls in their party halls during Christmas parties to reminisce their traditional usage of the craft. In New Zealand, practicing this unique and colourful Christmas tradition has yet to catch on with the greater number of Filipino-Kiwis although a few more intrepid members of this community do manage to import them from the Philippines and hang them at the entrances of their own residences to express their ethnic cultural pride.
Perhaps in time, more Filipino-Kiwis in New Zealand will catch on with the same idea because that would certainly add to the vibrancy and colour of celebrating Christmas in New Zealand being a Christian tradition just as the Hindu-based Diwali Festival (or Festival of Lights) is for the Indian-Kiwi community.
We think it would be a fascinating idea for the Philippine Embassy in Wellington to both support and promote its adoption as a tourist attraction and event with local councils in all major cities where substantial numbers of Filipino-Kiwis already reside and where active local Filipino-Kiwi community-based organ isations and groups like the Bulwagan Foundation Trust operate.