Philippine giant lantern festival resumes with historical ties to Japan

A century-old giant lantern festival in the Philippines has resumed after a three-year hiatus from in-person celebrations due to COVID-19 restrictions, with spectators enjoying the festivity that has historical links with Japan.

People have been flocking to San Fernando City in Pampanga, a province north of Manila also regarded as the country's "Christmas capital," to view the lanterns on display from Dec. 17 to Jan. 1.

An in-person giant festival was last held in 2019. The resumption is a cause for celebration for many Filipinos, well known for observing one the longest Christmas seasons in the world.

The lanterns, each made to represent a village in San Fernando, measure 20 feet in diameter and contain over 8,000 light bulbs that flicker in sync with Christmas songs and pop music played in the background.

This year, 10 villages competed in the giant lantern light show, with one lantern designed to pay tribute to medical workers during the pandemic, lit up with the words "salute frontliners."

Other lantern entries stirred the crowd with upbeat music such as the theme song of "Voltes V," a Japanese anime that became popular in the Philippines in the 1970s.

One lantern, from a tiny village called Pandaras, flashed the message "respect LGBTQ+" or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others.

"I hope people will be enlightened and treat us equally. Our lantern hopes to be that light," said Pandaras chief and gender rights advocate Edsel Miranda, who identifies himself as gay.

It takes two to three months and dozens of people, among them welders and electricians, to make a giant lantern, typically costing about $16,000. The winning village this year received about $5,000, double the prize in previous years.

Typically, homes and shops in the Philippines, the largest Catholic country in Asia, hang a lantern during the Christmas festivities. Pampanga's lantern tradition dates back to 1908, with the first giant lantern festival starting after electricity was introduced in San Fernando in the early 1930s.

In 1991, the eruption of the volcano Mt. Pinatubo, thought to be one of the most catastrophic in history, devastated Pampanga and almost disrupted the festival.

But the mayor at the time decided to push through with the festival to uplift people's spirits, according to Ernesto Quiwa, 75, one of the oldest lantern-makers in the area.

The lantern festival in Pampanga also has a connection with Japan. Pampanga suffered during Japan's military occupation of the Philippines which lasted for three years until 1945.

But the lanterns have come to represent new beginnings. Quiwa recalled how lantern makers used the power generators the Japanese soldiers had left to light up the lanterns.

The lantern covers themselves were originally made from Japanese paper, though since 1985, plastic vinyl has been used, he told Kyodo News.

Now retired from lantern making, he is passing on his craft to younger generations, as the festival continues to captivate the hearts of local residents and visitors.

In an address at the event's opening, Vilma Caluag, mayor of San Fernando, underscored the importance of the giant lantern festival, saying it "must be sustained because it inspires hope in us to go on."

© Kyodo News