Despite COVID, Pampanga’s Giant Lantern Festival lives on

Despite COVID, Pampanga’s Giant Lantern Festival lives on

PAMPANGA, Philippines—For the local parol makers of Pampanga, there is no COVID-19 pandemic that could stop the century-old lantern making tradition in the country’s “Christmas capital.”

They made sure the tradition is unstoppable because they believe this is a beacon of hope for Filipinos in these trying times.

“We want the people see the Christmas lanterns, and even for a while, forget that there is a pandemic going on, or there was a typhoon that just passed. This is a symbol that no matter what happens, Christmas goes on,” says Mark Niño Flores, the youngest giant lantern maker in the province.

Mark is personally trained by his father, Arnel, who has been in the industry for more than three decades. The 25-year-old parol maker has been the right hand of his father whenever they join the annual “Giant Lantern Festival.” It was in 2012 when Mark decided to put up his own team for the competition.

The Giant Lantern Festival is an annual competition locally known as the “Ligligan Parul” and exhibition of 20-foot tall lanterns from various barangays of the City of San Fernando, Pampanga. The lanterns, which are usually composed of around 10,000 light bulbs, are crafted and operated, not by modern technology, but by traditional methods that have been passed down through generations.

The UNESCO-recognized festival annually gathers around 50,000 spectators from all around the world, vying to witness the incredible synchronization of lights and sounds through the giant lanterns, painstakingly designed and crafted for around 6 months prior

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But because of the strict health protocols brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 112th year of the Giant Lantern Festival will only be held online, via a livestream.

The festival will skip the usual competition, opting instead for just an exhibition of the giant lanterns from seven participating barangays, instead.

“It was really quite an effort for the city government to still preserve and maintain the lantern-making tradition. In fact, lahat siguro ng mga LGU ngayon are very busy with their COVID response. But in the city, we also have to ensure na tuloy pa rin ang Pasko,”  San Fernando’s chief tourism officer Ching Pangilinan said.

Pangilinan reveals that all the supposed budget of the local government for the festival were realigned for its COVID-19 response, but it is the bayanihan spirit of Kapampangans that helped fund the preparation for the festival.

“Walang financial subsidy from the city government this year. It’s the Giant Lantern Foundation that is putting up the subsidy for the lanterns. The lantern makers themselves are chipping in just to make sure that the festival will push through,” says Pangilinan. “It reflects the bayanihan spirit and the strong public and private partnership here in the city.”

The challenge of preventing local transmission of COVID-19 during the course of their preparation for the festival has still been the top priority of their office, says Pangilinan.

“Since we’re talking about electrical mechanisms kailangan mayroon silang proper PPE sa pag-operate, but now we’re adding to that, because aside from the risk na makuryente sila, ang isang risk would be COVID transmission,” says Pangilinan.

“We have to ensure that our stakeholders on the ground are properly informed and are compliant to whatever guidelines the Inter-Agency Task Force issues to the Department of Tourism,” she added.

‘Parul Sampernandu’

Aside from joining the annual festival, the Flores family are also busy crafting commercial parols all year round to cater all their customers in and outside the country.

The “Parul Sampernandul” is patronized by well-known businesses in Metro Manila and even local government units from different provinces, said Mark. Their family has been supplying parols to various cities in the country, usually displayed in malls, hotels, and government offices.

Mark says they are stunned yet very grateful that the demand for parols did not go down this year. For him, it is a testament of how Filipinos patronize the quality and elegance of “Parul Sampernandu.”

“Ang in-expect namin ni Papa, wala talagang magpapagawa kasi ‘yung budget ng lahat napunta halos sa pandemic,” Mark narrates. “Pero nagulat kami kasi sunod-sunod pa rin ang mga nagpapagawa sa amin. Lalo na pagkatapos ng Halloween, sabay-sabay na ‘yung mga order.”

This was also the same in the case of Anna Marie Capiz, a local parol vendor who has been in the business for 30 years. Her store, located on JASA avenue, has been catering to customers from Pampanga, Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

“Parang parehas pa rin po sa dati ang benta, hindi naman nagbago. Siguro kasi nakikitaan ng mga tao ng pag-asa ‘yung mga parol,” says Capiz.

“Lagi kong naririnig sa mga bumibili sa amin na malungkot na nga ang nangyari sa atin, hindi pa ba tayo magsasabit kahit isang ilaw lang sa tahanan.”

Capiz shares that in her three decades of experience in selling parols, she finds fulfillment, not just in the high amount of sale, but whenever she sees and feels the excitement of families flocking to her store.

As Filipinos continue to see hope in the colorful lights of these Christmas lanterns, the parol-making tradition of Kapampangans will continue to shine even during the darkest times. — LA

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