Thursday, December 16, 2010


ASIDE from the lubenas, another unique feature of the Kapampangan Christmas is the giant lanterns of San Fernando. But unlike the lubenas, which can still be found in several towns, the giant lanterns were, are and most likely will be, exclusively in one town only: the City of San Fernando.

For sure, the art of making paper lanterns did not originate in Pampanga, not even in the Philippines (it most likely started in China). But Kapampangans can stake a claim (until proven otherwise) to paper lanterns as Christmas ornaments.

During colonial times, paper lanterns with candles inside them were used to illuminate religious processions, most notably during the La Naval in Bacolor every second week of November. They replaced hand-held candles, which were impractical for processions held in the breezy months of November and December.

These paper lanterns were most likely mounted on poles, and after the La Naval procession was over, were kept and the following month, used again for the lubenas. So we can deduce that the tradition of lubenas and its star-shaped Christmas lanterns began in the then capital town of Bacolor.

In 1904, the new colonizers, the Americans, moved the provincial capital from Bacolor to the next town, San Fernando, which was booming as a result of a growing sugar industry and the Manila-Dagupan Railroad, which passed San Fernando but not Bacolor. Everything was physically transferred - the Provincial Capitol, government offices, courts, and yes, even the lubenas and its quaint paper lanterns.

In those early days, San Fernando was swinging and galloping at full throttle, fueled by the money of the nouveau rich under the auspices of the Americans. Elegant mansions mushroomed all over town. If the defeated Bacolor was the bastion of Spanish culture, triumphant San Fernando was being reconfigured to showcase the best of American society. Thus, dance parties, balls and socials became the order of the day. Gov. Howard Taft even visited the town.

The lubenas benefited from the economic boom. San Fernando residents spruced up their lanterns, replacing paper with cloth and candles with carbide lamps (carburo). The big lantern of the lubenas, traditionally found right behind the carroza, became even bigger, measuring as wide as 10 feet even in those days. It eventually spun away from the lubenas and took a life of its own, becoming the forerunner of the now-famous giant lanterns.

In 1908, the lubenas became a ligligan (competition) of lanterns. In 1931, carbide lamps were replaced with electricity-powered lights.

Originally, only nine barrios of San Fernando participated; each night of the nine-day lubenas (December 16-24) was assigned to a barrio, which showcases its lanterns around the designated paglimbunan (procession route), i.e., starting from the Baluyut Bridge, turning right to Consunji Street, winding around McArthur Highway, turning to Tiomico Street and then to the other end of Consunji Street before terminating at the patio between the church and the municipal hall.

The original barrios that were assigned dates of lubenas around the parish church were, in chronological order: San Pedro Cutud (first because St. Peter held the keys to heaven), San Nicolas, Del Pilar, Sta. Lucia, San Jose, Dolores, San Agustin, Del Carmen and finally, Sto. Niño (last because the Holy Child was the ultimate symbol of Christmas). The judges viewed the lanterns from the balconies of the mansions along Consunji Street (owned by the Hizon, Ocampo, Rodriguez, Lazatin, Abad Santos and Singian families, among others).

The competition became a vehicle for barrio sugu (Kapampangan term for bayanihan), in which the wealthy residents of the barrio funded the construction of the lanterns (locally known as parul or tambul tambulan) while the poor residents volunteered their skills.

Because lanterns easily wore out and the giant ones could not be stored anywhere, the maitinis (final night of the lubenas during which all barrio entries converged in the church patio) became the occasion for paspasan tambul tambulan, in which holders of the lanterns-on-poles from one barrio smashed their lanterns against those of other barrios. The last lantern standing was declared winner. It was a rather violent ending for such dainty lanterns, which was probably why the smashing part was discontinued after a while.

It was around the 1930s that the rotor made its first appearance. The rotor is the mechanism that makes the lights inside the giant lantern dance; it consists of a barrel wrapped with a metal sheet, a row of hairpins (aspilé), and spaghetti-like electric wires that connect the rotor to the lantern.

When the operator rotates the rotor, the hairpins glide against the metal sheet, conveying electricity to the lantern. The secret is in the design of the masking tapes, which determines which lights in the lantern go on and off.

It is both primitive and innovative - a testament to the creative genius of Kapampangans. The fact that it is still being used today, after over 50 years, and after the lanterns had grown into humongous proportions requiring a huge amount of electric power, truly defies reason.

Rodolfo David, who died in 1971, is the acknowledged inventor of the rotor. David belonged to a family of lantern makers in barrio Sta. Lucia, whose patriarch, Francisco Estanislao, pioneered lantern making in San Fernando in the early 1900s.

His son-in-law, Severino David, introduced battery-operated giant lanterns in the early 1940s. After World War II, the family popularized the use of papel de japon for lanterns, which was a major aesthetic leap. Rodolfo David, aside from inventing the rotor, also produced a new lantern design in 1958, which has defined the so-called classic San Fernando lantern and influenced practically all other succeeding giant lantern designs.

The clan's present torchbearer is Ernesto David Quiwa, who introduced plastic vinyl as a more durable replacement to papel de japon; he is the first to win grand slam in the annual Ligligan and is credited to have brought the San Fernando parul to national and international prominence.

Today the Giant Lantern Festival is a certified national event that draws not only hundreds of thousands of viewers but also jurors that include foreign dignitaries and national figures. The lanterns are as large as houses, using up to 4,000 light bulbs and costing half a million pesos each. The acknowledged king of giant lanterns these days is Rolando Quiambao, whose passionate advocacy for the preservation of this unique Kapampangan tradition has attracted media attention and hordes of new admirers.

These giant electronic peacocks are truly a sight to behold; we Kapampangans have probably become jaded to them but tourists who see them for the first time gasp and gape; it's like witnessing a fleet of spaceships blinking with rainbow colors and descending from the starry December sky.

They are also community heirlooms, like the giant pyramids, which contain an ancient folk technology passed down from the ancestors. Part of their charm is their fleeting nature; they are assembled only in December and in January they are disassembled again, because their size prevents them from getting stored even in warehouses.

You often see cannibalized giant lanterns lying around in backyards and empty lots during the rainy season, like skeletons long decomposed and awaiting their next reincarnation. These magnificent cultural icons do not deserve this treatment.

The government should put up a foundation to ensure their survival in the years, even generations, ahead. Right now, some of them are funded by sponsors who can dictate their preferred designs and even insinuate their product logo on the face of the lantern.

The music to which the lanterns dance should be live and not canned, and certainly not cheesy tunes. Beethoven, Strauss and Mozart would be fine, but traditional Kapampangan music would even be better. Also, there should be a way to preserve and display them all year round.

An impoverished barangay spending close to half-a-million pesos for something to be displayed for only a few days is impractical, even immoral. Giant lanterns should go beyond Christmas; they should be transported to different towns where thousands of Kapampangans still haven't gone to SM to see a giant lantern, and should be displayed during fiestas and other big public occasions.

Lastly, the rotor system should be retired in a museum. It's a cultural gem, but it's an albatross around the neck of the giant lantern, dragging it down. Giant lanterns should be easy to transport and to mount, anywhere. But with huge rotors on a six-by-six truck following them around, who wants a giant lantern in their park, yard or patio? I am sure we have enough technology with which to replace the rotor. This way, we can all focus on the marvel of the lights and colors of the giant lantern, instead of its underbelly.

(With additional notes by Landlee A. Quiwa)

SunstarPampanga (December, 2006)

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