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Our Christmas lantern tradition

WITH the entry of September this year and our radio stations beginning to air Christmas carols, Filipinos in Singapore lighted a 14-foot Christmas lantern at the Asian Civilization Museum. It was in the tradition of Pampanga’s giant lanterns, with 1,200 light bulbs blinking on and off in synchronized dancing patterns. The exhibit continues until tomorrow, then will be reinstalled next month for the Christmas season.

Leading the Filipinos behind the Singapore project is Pampanga artisan Arvin Quiwa, with City of San Fernando Mayor Edwin Santiago contributing funds for the making of the lantern. Giant lantern competitions have long been a part of San Fernando’s Christmas, with its several barrios competing for top prizes on Christmas Eve in the town plaza.

Lanterns are at the center of the Philippine Christmas tradition, the most basic form being a five-pointed star with thin colored paper and twin ruffles hanging from the star’s two lowest points symbolizing the rays that lighted Bethlehem on that first Christmas.

In the days before electricity, lanterns lighted the way of people going to church before dawn or after sunset. Today in the urban centers of the country, streets and plazas are decorated and lighted with lanterns of all sizes and shapes. Stars shine on Belens or Nativity scenes and at the top of giant Christmas trees in town plazas. Many Filipino families abroad hang traditional paper Christmas star lanterns in front of their homes, a reminder of how it used to be in the old hometown.

Filipinos are all over the world today – many in our own region as in Singapore, but also in the farthest reaches of Asia, Oceania, Europe, the Americas, and even Africa. They have kept their Christian traditions alive wherever they have come to live and work. In many churches abroad, they fill churches on Sundays.

The Lantern Festival of San Fernando, from which the 16-foot one in Singapore is descended, has its roots in Bacolor, moving to San Fernando in 1904. The introduction of electricity in 1931 led to the birth of the giant lanterns with their bright colors, intricate designs, and lights that danced to the beat of band music. The first lantern festival was held to honor President Manuel L. Quezon who had made nearby Arayat his rest home.

Except for three years during martial law – in 1972-74 – the lantern festival has been a highlight of Christmas in San Fernando. There have been years when the winning lanterns were displayed at the Luneta in Manila. This year, a giant lantern will shine in Singapore, spreading this Filipino Christmas tradition.

The Filipino Christmas is not only the longest – from September 1 to Three Kings in January – but also, because of our lanterns big and small, among the most widespread in the world.