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Giant lanterns go ‘dancing’

December 17, 2007

CITY OF SAN FERNANDO -- Every year, Pampanga’s giant Christmas lanterns light up the night sky and bring in the crowds.

During Saturday’s Ligligan Parul (Lantern Festival), eight lanterns, each measuring 5.5 meters in diameter and fitted with 3,000 to 6,000 bulbs, danced for the first time in 20 years to the music of a brass band, a tradition being revived in this Pampanga capital.

The folk element was resurrected, courtesy of the city government’s Magsilbi Tamu (Let’s Serve) Brass Band 919.

The 45-member ensemble played under the baton of Edwin Lumanog, performing a medley of Christmas songs testing the sense of timing and rhythm of the lantern-makers and operators who showed off the designs and colors of their mammoth creations in the final round of the lantern competition.

Unlike in the early 1980s when the band played nonstop till morning, this time the band rendered a five-minute challenge.

The bands were edged out by the advent of stereo and CD (compact disc) players which blasted western ditties.

“We would have added a set of Kapampangan folk songs, but they were rushing to close the program due to security reasons,” said Lumanog, 33, a graduate of the University of the Philippines’ College of Music.

The brass band was formed by Mayor Oscar Rodriguez in 2004 to revive the dying tradition of musical bands. Members are city government employees who play the flute, clarinet, French horn, trumpet, trombone, baritone, drums and saxophone.

“It was a welcome development when they brought back the live marching band to the festival,” said Ivan Henares, a trustee of the San Fernando, Pampanga Heritage Foundation.


The lanterns, with thousands of bulbs flashing in no less than 100 patterns, shone brighter than the moon that night.

Historians and craftsmen disagree on when the giant lantern festival actually started.

If the basis of reckoning was the use of the car battery to operate the lanterns, the lantern festival started in 1938, when then President Manuel Quezon came to appease farmers restless over the ownership of their lands.

If the basis was the use of electricity, then it started in 1927 when San Fernando Light and Power Co. was founded.

The festival traces its roots to religious processions and Masses held for nine days at dawn called lubenas (novenas) in Bacolor, the town from which San Fernando was created in 1574.

Mayor Rodriguez said at the opening that the festival had become a “show of the Fernandinos’ ingenuity and faithfulness to tradition.”
5,100 bulbs

The lantern of Barangay Telabastagan—operated with seven rotors, filled with 5,100 bulbs and designed by Arnel Flores—topped the competition. It earned 96.5 points from the 17-member board of judges chaired by former Zambales Rep. Katherine Gordon.

Barangay San Felipe, the defending champion, placed second, while Barangay San Nicolas came up third.

The lanterns were judged on the basis of design, color combination, interplay of lights and rhythm to the music.

In the first round, each lantern “played” for seven minutes to music set by its creator. In the second round, the lanterns “performed” in pairs for five minutes to music set by the festival committee. In the final round, the lanterns “danced” to live music rendered by the brass band.

“Medyo masakit (It was quite difficult),” said Joseph San Juan, one of this city’s best rotor operators. Not used to hearing a live marching band, he tried to keep up by “feeling the pulse of the music.”


Nileema Noble, United Nations resident coordinator in the Philippines, said the event was “magnificent” because it showed that an old tradition could still flourish in modern times.

Malaysian Ambassador Ahmad Rasidi Hazizi was “very impressed.”

“The lanterns are very colorful. It reflected the happiness of the people. We do not have big lanterns in Malaysia but we have small lanterns during Chinese New Year,” he said.

Gordon said she and her husband, Sen. Richard Gordon, took part in the festival because the senator “has Kapampangan roots.”

“We’re friends with Corito Panlilio-Lim (cochair of the festival) and we wanted to show our support for Among Ed (Pampanga Gov. Eddie Panlilio),” she said.

Celebrating ingenuity

Panlilio said the festival “celebrated the ingenuity, creativity and passion for excellence of the Kapampangan.”

“Let’s look for more ways to get our province more involved in tourism,” he said.

Families came in droves, with parents carrying their kids on their shoulders to give them a good view of the lanterns.

The event attracted locals and foreigners, aside from the ambassadors and representatives of Cambodia, Greece, Italy, Laos, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar), Palau, Panama, Qatar, Russia, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and South Korea.

More than 1,000 police officers, soldiers, village guards and six bomb-sniffing dogs secured the three-hour festival. Five fire trucks were seen at the venue, the SM City Pampanga amphitheater.

Heart of the lantern

The lantern owes its magic to the rotor, a rotating cylinder which was originally made of wood, later changed into copper plate and lately, aluminum.

According to accounts, it was lantern-maker Crising Valencia who invented the contraption.

Considered the “heart” of the lantern, the rotor makes the bulbs go on and off in a set of patterns.

Here’s how that visual effect is created: All the wires of the bulbs are connected to dozens of steel hairpins arranged in a row. The pins are later made to scratch the surface of the barrel-shaped aluminum sheet, which is the main piece connected to an electrical source.

Parts of the sheet’s surface are covered with masking tape corresponding to the patterns of lights.

While the lanterns vary in design, they retain the old parts, such as the tambor (middle part), siku-siku (star angles), puntetas (inner rim) and palimbun (rays).
The barrel is rotated with a car wheel, the pins come in contact with exposed or covered parts, enabling the bulbs to either light up or shut off.
Lantern dance

Lantern-maker Roland Quiambao said the lantern festival was held yearly despite communist rebellions or lahar mudflows.

“We make lanterns to bring hope. When you see a lantern, you remember the Star of Bethlehem that guided the Three Kings to Christ, the light of the world,” Quimbao said.

The festival is supported by the private sector, enabling the city government to provide a P125,000 subsidy to each of the eight participating villages.

The lanterns will be exhibited for public viewing from Dec. 16 to Dec. 30 at the Paskuhan Village here.

In keeping with the Catholic tradition, the lanterns will be transferred to the Metropolitan Cathedral at the city proper on Christmas Eve.

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