Boisterous, larger than life, extravagant, creative: these Kapampangan traits may also describe the giant lanterns of San Fernando, the capital city of Pampanga. Deservedly, it is also known as the “Christmas Capital of the Philippines” in the tourist map, for these works of art that celebrate the best qualities of its culture.

It’s the night of the Ligligan Parul, the world-renowned San Fernando Giant Lantern Festival. A huge crowd has formed in the spectator section across the wide competition area, and more are arriving. Like the Magi of the first Christmas, many having come from afar, invited not by the light of a tiny star in an unreachable sky, but by giant disks that now sit in the darkness, variegated patterns barely visible on their faces. In a few hours, they will become stars come down on earth, rivalling their heavenly counterparts in magnificence, each shining ray of light emerging from a long history of inspired resourcefulness and skill among Fernandinos.

For several decades, the Giant Lantern Festival has been the piece de resistance of a long holiday season in the City of San Fernando. Neither Martial Law curfews nor Mount Pinatubo eruptions have dampened the eagerness of Fernandinos in mounting this vibrant spectacle. In fact, the lantern contest has grown in proportion to the progress of the city, and today it can boast of being truly as world-class as its unique and endearing festival.

The mere sight of a slumbering giant San Fernando lantern is already quite formidable for one used to the size of ordinary parols hung at home. But once awakened by festive music, it becomes a delightfully gargantuan kaleidoscope that brings every beholder back to that certain age of wonder when everything was new.

However, there is more to it than kinetic colors gaily evolving in every imaginable shape and symmetry. A giant parol is both a work of art and a product of technical know-how, showcasing ingenuity and creativity with the most basic of materials.

A giant lantern always begins in the mind of the master parol maker in the village, who is both a visual artist and an accomplished electrician. Himself a former apprentice of previous masters, he has gathered a formidable experience culled from tradition and craftsmanship often handed down from father to son, and most certainly will be passed on to the more diligent of his children, assistants and helpers. Almost a year before the competition, he is already laying out a strategy of visual delight, motivated by the ultimate prize: a full year of bragging rights over other barangays or villages.

He then proceeds to commit his design to paper, with a time table and a work plan that covers months of intense preparation and construction. The design extrapolates a pentagonal pattern taken from the small traditional bamboo parols that accompanied religious images of barangay chapels as they made their way to the mother church for the Christmas Eve mass decades ago.

His designs are then scaled to the desired dimension, and the patterns are traced with chalk or pencil on a spacious floor. Steel bars are cut and bent to follow each section of the layout on the ground, and are then painstakingly welded together. Two identical skeletons are constructed, which are then joined to form a three-dimensional frame with enough space in between for bulbs and wiring.

The giant frame is then held upright, and individual cardboard compartments are assembled to isolate the bulbs within each steel section. Each compartment is also lined with reflective metal foil to intensify illumination. In the past, resourceful builders used the foil linings of discarded cigarette packs for this purpose.

While the frame sections are being compartmentalized, bulbs from previous competitions are cleaned and tested, with busted ones replaced. On the average, more than 3,000 bulbs are used for every giant lantern, and recycling bulbs are a way of bringing down the significant costs of the construction.

The head electrician and his team takes over after the compartments are lined with foil. Usually, four bulbs of different colors are installed in each compartment. This will allow more permutations of patterns that are created through the illusion of movement as the bulbs light up into running arabesques and dancing diagrams. This arduous stage is a test of the electrician’s skill as he applies a complex combination of parallel and series circuitry while faithfully following the vision of the designer.

The thick array of wires that jut out from the back of the parol are carefully sorted and connected to a deceptively simple switching system, the rotors. Large sheet metal cylinders of different sizes are horizontally mounted on upright housings, their axles connected to a steering wheel. Slightly hovering across each rotor is an insulated bar where scores of copper wires are laid out in contact with the cylinder surface, which is plastered with masking tape in periodic intervals. Each copper wire is connected to a particular bulb. The cylinder is grounded to one terminal of the power source, while the bulbs and their respective copper wires are connected to the other terminal. When the steering wheel is turned, the wires attached to the insulated bar glide over the metal cylinder surface. The masking tape of the rotating cylinder makes or breaks a circuit, lighting the bulbs in a desired order.

While the electricians work on kilometers of electric wires behind the parol, workers busy themselves with layering over each compartment with translucent paper. Over these layers, paper cut-outs are added, to give an impression of shading whenever any of the bulbs inside are lit.   This creates the distinct effect of graduated tint and saturation that is unique to the Fernandino lantern.

After the electrical works and paper overlays are completed, the “play” of the bulbs is then tested. With critics and bystanders on hand, the lantern is connected to the local power grid and appropriately named “drivers” man the rotor steering wheels. The lantern comes alive, and with every turn of the rotors, colourful patterns and formations emerge. Under the tutelage of the master parol maker, everyone agrees to a strategy for following the dynamics, rhythm and melody of an accompanying music. Corresponding adjustments and corrections are made. When the master lantern maker is satisfied that his creation can best other parols, its front and back surfaces are swathed and a clear plastic sheet is laid over the entire lantern to protect it from the elements.

The giant lantern is of such sheer size that a large ten-wheeler truck is needed to transport it. It is mounted over the hood on sturdy trusses, with a mechanism for inclination, specifically to allow the assembly to pass through low overhangs across a street. On the truck bed, the rotors are assembled, with just enough space for a driver to snugly fit in.

The long-awaited night arrives. The excitement of the competition, or ligligan in the Kapampangan language, is upon the city. Behemoths from different barangays are slowly wheeled in and neatly lined up in the competition area. Hours pass, then minutes go by. Last minute adjustments are made. Connections are checked and double-checked. Thousands are in attendance. While the opening ceremonies are performed and the perfunctory speeches are delivered, the master parol makers, their assistants and drivers are eager with expectation. Finally, a contestant is called, and the signal is given. Months of gruelling work are now condensed in this one decisive moment.

As the first notes of music fills the air, the giant lantern comes to life, exploding, imploding, shimmering, dancing. A point of light timidly flickers, but taking its cue from the musical crescendo it shatters like a gem into a festival of prisms. Colors mysteriously change and shapes undulate into complicated curlicues. The people watch in awe, taking note of the rhythm and the novelty of design. At the end of a turn, their oohs and aahs are replaced by thunderous applause.

One giant lantern is followed by another, and still another. Favorites are noted. After rounds of fantastic individual and group display, the people gird themselves for the ultimate showdown: all competing giant lanterns perform simultaneously to an upbeat tune, trying to literally out-electrify each other. The spectators cannot concentrate on just one or two entries, but must scan the whole length of the field, because every lantern is doing its best to impress. The once dark competition ground is now awash with restless light that reflects upon the flush faces of the spectators. The stars have truly come down from heaven.

The adrenalin rush does not die down with the last flickering hue at the official end of the competition. As the scores are tallied, excitement mounts. The judges are hard at work while the penultimate activities onstage are completed. The delay fails to rein in the growing anticipation. Finally, the moment of reckoning has come, and the winner is announced. Wild cheering erupts. Fireworks explode in the sky, futilely trying to replicate the concluded spectacle on the ground. Winners exult, their bragging rights secure for a year. The ligligan parul of San Fernando is over, but as everyone happily treads back home, there is already an anticipation of the contest next Christmas season.