Filipinos pass on culture to children by teaching how to craft bamboo reeds into colorful lanterns
By Jack DeVries
In the back room of the Bayanihan Community Center on Mission Street, Bernadette Sy shows her son how to tie bamboo reeds together to form a star. When the star is finished it will become a lantern that will get hung up in the Sy’s home as part of the Parol Lantern Festival, a Filipino tradition that has been in the dark for years, but is shining a lot brighter recently.
“Filipinos over the last decade have really brought back those parols, put them in their windows, and we see them more and more each year,” said Sy, Executive Director of the Filipino American Development Foundation.
Sy, along with other participants and volunteers at the Bayanihan Community Center teach children and anyone else interested how to make the traditional star shaped lanterns that the festival is known for. The classes run from mid-October to early December and serve as a way for people to learn the basics of the Christmas tradition that has been going on longer than the tradition of the Christmas Tree.
The tradition of the Parol Lantern Festival originates in the Pampanga region of the Philippines as far back as the 1300s. Inspired by traditional piñatas, the stars are symbolic of the star that led the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem and the baby Jesus. The lanterns are traditionally made from thin bamboo reeds, then covered in colored paper or cellophane. While the star is the traditional shape, many people make larger and more elaborate designs. In the Philippines it’s not uncommon to see huge lanterns in the shape of popular character like Hello Kitty.
For some, like Lorelai Sullivan, the community center’s classes offer a way to connect to traditions left behind and share them with others.
“I haven’t made one of these lanterns since I lived in the Philippines,” Sullivan said. “Now I finally get to do this again, and teach my daughter to do it too.”
The Parol lanterns also serve as a way to identify other members of the community during the holiday season.
“When you look in the windows in San Francisco or around the bay area of peoples homes and you see the parol, then right away you think—Oh they’re Filipino,” Sy said.
“Not many people know what the Parol is,” Sullivan said. “They think it’s just another Christmas decoration, but to us it means so much more.”
The Bayanihan Community Center provides services for many groups, and serves as the center for Filippino Veteran Equity. During the holiday season the center bustles with excitement, and everyone participates in the festival.
“The city holds a competition every year, and some people make lanterns that are 20 feet tall,” said MC Canlas, a director at the center and one of the teachers of the lantern workshop. “Last year the World War II veterans that come here won the competition.”
Walking down Mission street one can already see colored star lanterns hanging in windows, signs of Filippino residents that are proud of their heritage.