GERONA, Tarlac—A little over 140 kms from Manila is a balmy barangay, inappropriately named Caturay, which has become, at least among highway travelers, an early Central Luzon symbol of Christmas in this predominantly Christian country.
The barangay name is derived from the corkwood tree whose flowers are relished as salad by Ilocanos in the Central Plains north of the capital up to the northernmost towns and villages of Ilocos and the Cagayan Valley.
As early as the latter part of September up to the cold weeks of December, the area provides stiff business competition to lantern makers 73 kms south of this town, where the giant lantern parade has become an icon for Christmas festival in this country which received the Cross in the 16th century.
The highway in Caturay here, a dominant agricultural economy with rice and sugar cane as main products of this second class town of Tarlac, the “melting pot” of Central Luzon, twinkles with different colors and lantern shapes from sundown to dawn.
Farther north, in Rosario town in La Union, 216 kms from Manila, a tree house at the junction is decked with multi-colored lanterns that provide lights to and tribute from night travelers passing by—those from the Ilocos and Benguet or those driving from the metropolis for quick visits to the province at this time.
Some towns in La Union, like Aringay and Bacnotan, Ilocos Sur, like Cabugao and Sinait, and Ilocos Norte, like Badoc, the hometown of the Lunas, and the Darat junction in Pinili, where Filipino guerrillas fought hand-to-hand combat against the Americans during the Philippine American War, have their share of the night lights from giant lanterns along the concrete MacArthur highway.
In the metropolis, particularly near the Greenhills shopping center, motorists can switch off their head lights with the bright gleam from lanterns of different shapes on both sides of Gilmore street.
At the busy Roxas Blvd. fronting Manila Bay, lanterns of different shapes and with several bulbs are hung on electric posts, making a kaleidoscopic skyline for the capital during the night.
The Christmas lanterns are like the carols being sung starting in September in this country, one of two predominantly Catholic countries in Asia -– the other is East Timor — which have become a lasting symbol for one of the biggest holidays in this archipelago of 98 million.
The official observance does not begin until Dec. 16, with what Tagalogs call the “Simbang Gabi,” or what Ilocanos call “Miatinis,” or what Cebuanos call “Misa de Gallo” from the Spanish term which means Mass of the Rooster, and lasts until Epiphany.
The Philippines, which became a predominantly Christian nation in the 16th century following the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan, has several symbols of Christmas, but the lanterns are the biggest in this country.
Homes and buildings are dolled up with beautiful star lanterns called “parol,” from the Spanish “farol” which means lantern.
Traditionally, “parols,” made of bamboo sticks wrapped with crepe paper and a candle to illuminate it, are denotative of the star of Bethlehem which led the lowly shepherds to Jesus’ manger 2,000 years ago.
Almost every home, city street, building, shopping district, public square, department store, commercial area, and church are decorated with lustrous Christmas trees and prismatic blinking lights.
”Parol” is a traditional Filipino Christmas decoration, a five-point star-shaped Christmas lantern.
Starting in the latter part of September, lanterns -– some have taken other shapes like Santa Claus with his herd of reindeers and other innovations symbolic of Christmas, are seen everywhere.
Originally, the Filipino lantern was made of thin bamboo frames and masked with colored cellophane or with rice paper also known as Japanese paper or “papel de Japon.” It has two tails that serve as the rays of the star.