The Dazzling Magic of Filipino Lanterns

The five-pointed parol has long been a symbol of the holiday season in the Philippines. The star-shaped lanterns are crafted from materials ranging from paper to shells, and often light up, illuminating the windows of Filipino households at home and abroad.

“It is an iconic symbol of Christmas for Filipinos,” Philadelphia-based artist Omar Buenaventura, who co-runs who runs Filipino cultural collective Bahay215, told Hyperallergic. “In the same sense as the Christmas tree is for others.” Symbolizing the star of Bethlehem, the lantern traditionally signified lighting the way for the three wise men. However, the parol also served a more utilitarian purpose: It physically brightened churchgoers’ journeys to Simbang Gabi (masses at dawn) and Misa de Gallo (midnight mass) during Christmas. The word “parol” is thought to be an evolution of the Spanish word farol, meaning “lantern.” Each year in the Philippines and across the diaspora, parol festivals light up the streets each December, with large events taking place in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Traditional parols are crafted with oyster shells from Capiz, a region known for the translucent white export. Philadelphia-based artist Maria Sabio has family there, and told Hyperallergic that while she often sees this historic form in windows in the Philippines, lanterns crafted with alternate materials are more common state-side. Buying a shell parol in the US can cost hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. They’re sold in small shops and markets in Jersey City and Woodside, Queens, which are home to large Filipino communities. The Woodside Phil-Am Market sold out of their large, light-up versions this year, but still has small parols available for $13.

A light-up parol hanging in a window (photo via Flickr)

While shell parols can get expensive, paper lanterns offer an affordable alternative. Sabio remembers making them as a holiday craft as a kid, and Buenaventura creates them every year with his family. Earlier this month, Buenaventura and Bahay215 co-founder Nicky Uy held a parol-making workshop at their home with more accessible traditional materials: bamboo sticks tied together with string and covered in colorful paper attached with rice or cornstarch paste. They hope to continue the sessions with a reliance on locally sourced bamboo.

In other parts of the country, other artists are also looking to expand the practice of parol-making. Brooklyn-based artist Francis Estrada, who learned how to make parols in the Philippines as part of her school curriculum, led a parol-making lesson for kids from 2011 through 2019 at the Filipino School of New York and New Jersey, which has continued holding the lessons. In San Francisco, designer Ciriaco Sayoc hosted a demonstration of how he makes his nontraditional perforated lanterns.

Anito Gavino, another Philadelphia-based artist, told Hyperallergic that she used to make parols with her father. After he died in 2021, Gavino and three other Filipino artists — Brandon Aquino Straus, Malaya Ulan, and Mic Dino Boekellmann held a series of workshops that culminated in a local window installation.

“My dad is from Manila and my mom’s from Iloilo, and wherever we celebrated, parols were everywhere. From farmlands to urban spaces and regardless of socioeconomic status, people displayed parols,” Gavino said. “It was a perfect way to light up a cold and dark street in West Philadelphia, spreading that joyful Filipino spirit during the cold winters here.”

“My vision is to illuminate a hundred stars in Philadelphia,” said Buenaventura. “To shine the light on the Filipino tradition of making Parol lanterns.” 

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