Filipino and Filipino Americans show pride in their Asian roots through the public display of parols in a year marred by anti-Asian violence.
The Philippine Christmas spirit
Wherever a Filipino might be around the globe, the Philippine Christmas spirit is one aspect of culture that does not fade away. With Christmas around the corner, brightly-colored Christmas lanterns called “parols” illuminate the night as a symbol of love and hope.
In the Philippines, the holiday spirit is felt and celebrated as soon as the “-BER” months start. For most Filipinos, September is really when the countdown to Christmas begins. This means Christmas decorations and music are blasted through neighborhoods and malls. Children also fill the evening with Christmas caroling as adults plan reunions and celebrations. Social media may also be flooded with memes featuring Chinese-Filipino singer Jose Mari Chan, who is heralded as the “King of Philippine Christmas Carols.”
With a predominantly Catholic population, it is important for many to visit churches at dawn to attend a daily mass called “Simbang Gabi” from December 16 to 24. The nine-day series of Masses are meant to highlight the anticipation for Jesus Christ’s birth.
The Remembrance of Hope
Christmas may not start as early for Filipino Americans or Filipinos living abroad, but the Philippine Christmas spirit persists across generations as the symbol of hope guides them back to their Filipino roots. One way in which the Filipino culture and tradition is remembered abroad is through the public displays of parols.
Kenneth De La Fuente, a senior at University of Oregon, visited his grandparents in Los Angeles for the holiday season. In addition to the warm welcome of his family, he was greeted with the Filipino joy and Christmas spirit of the parols.
“We feel that it is important to put these up during the holidays not only to make our house look aesthetically pleasing but also to remind us of our Filipino heritage and culture,” De La Fuente told NextShark. “The parol is more than just a lantern but a reminder that the Christmas spirit is within us.”
He believes that the lanterns encapsulate Filipino pride and culture. He sees it as a sacred symbol that represents the Filipino community and serves as a reminder to celebrate the holidays. And given a parol can be crafted in many different ways, De La Fuente suggests, “It is also a fun way of displaying the uniqueness of the Filipino culture and how art-savvy the people are.”
“The Christmas Parol signifies the light that keeps on shining during the Christmas season,” he added. “Even more so, I really feel that the light signifies a lot more in that it provides hope or even a reassurance that regardless of how awful or how well a year went, there will always be that light in the end reminding us that things will be alright.”
On the East Coast, Kristine Baetiong, a 32-year-old nurse in Clifton, New Jersey, has also put up a Christmas parol in her family’s home along with the Nativity miniature to represent the birth of Jesus.
“We put up the parol as a symbol of Light and Hope for the coming year,” Baetiong said. “It is also a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem, which brings light to guide the three wise men in the midst of darkness. It is super important, because it portrays our culture and my [Catholic] religion. It shows that you don’t forget where you come from.”
As Baetiong proudly showcases her decorations, she adds that this gives her a sense of belonging in the Filipino community. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of where we come from, because it made us who we are today,” she said.
“To me it means hope — the light that shines bright and brings so much joy, hope and new beginnings,” Baetiong noted regarding the light of her Christmas parol.
In downtown Los Angeles, many Filipino American organizations come together in annual celebration of Simbang Gabi and Parade of Parols at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. The Philippine Consulate General in L.A. joined 120 parish ministries, civic and non-governmental organizations and Catholic associations in the evening Mass and the Star lantern parade around the church on Dec. 16.
“This is my first time attending the Simbang Gabi here in Los Angeles,” Consular Assistant Czarina Villatito told NextShark. “It is celebrated every year by the Filipino community in Los Angeles. Each [Filipino community] organization designs a parol with the theme of the event in mind.”
The theme of this year’s Simbang Gabi is “Gifted to Share the Light of Christ,” and it was held under the auspices of the San Pedro Pastoral Region and the Filipino Ministry of the Archdiocese of L.A. According to Villatito, L.A. has a huge Filipino community. She believes that the parol is “a primary symbol of the Christmas season in Philippine culture.”
“It is important for the Consulate to take part in this event, because as the representative of the Philippine government it is our responsibility to promote our cultural heritage and to support our community,” Villatito stated. “This year’s [Consulate] parol was filled with poinsettia blooms of red and gold. To me, it symbolized love (red) and Filipino pride (gold).”
A new beginning
Villatito talked with NextShark about the spirit of Filipinos and their hopefulness. Amidst a year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian violence and natural disasters, perhaps, the light of the parol can remind us of hope and a new beginning.
“Personally, the parol signifies the Filipino spirit of happiness, love, family togetherness, and hope,” Villatito said. “When I celebrate Christmas outside of the Philippines, I personally feel a sense of identity and Filipino pride because when I see a parol displayed outside one’s house, I immediately know that it is a Filipino household whose Christmas traditions are similar to mine.”