Framed in stars: The art of parol making

Twinkling strings of lights framing window sills, malls packed with shoppers scurrying to buy last-minute presents, and children singing carols with makeshift instruments—the sight of these are all good signs that the Christmas season is fast approaching. However, perhaps one of the most obvious ways to know when the holidays have arrived, at least in the Philippines, is when street posts and homes alike are bathed in the familiar glow of parols. 

With wires and shells 

From simple crafts made from bamboos and Japanese papers to lanterns with capiz shell-based designs illuminated by lights, the craft of parol making has been lighting up the country since 1908. While their festive designs have seen many changes over the years, one thing has stayed the same: all traditional parols remain handmade. This time-tested process takes hours to complete, and involves more skill than one may realize. 

Like most art forms, the procedure begins with a design or pattern; in most cases, a designer uses an initial wireframe to create the parol’s framework, which fellow parol makers then buy and replicate. This is perhaps why parols across the country tend to come in similar styles. Once the pattern is in place, capiz shells that are used for the process are then cleaned and cut into shape. Finally, a layer of paint and varnish is added to the assembled shells, ready for lights to be placed inside. 

Eduard Bonilla, a parol maker from Cavite who specializes in capiz lanterns, knows this sequence all too well. Bonilla initially entered the field of parol making as a business financier, wanting only to support his brothers-in-law with their parol making venture. As time passed, he eventually learned the craft as well—a learning process that not only took some time but also was not without pain. Bonilla recounts the times he tried assembling the capiz and galvanized iron sheets over and over, the jagged edges of the shell digging into his skin at every attempt. In spite of this, the pride that came with his first few finished parols made the cuts and scrapes well worth it in the end.  

Noong una, nag-testing ako, kinakabahan ako baka hindi magustuhan ‘yung parol ko… Tapos noong nakita na nila, prenesyohan na nila kaagad. Nakakagaan ng pakiramdam ‘pag pinupuri,” he shares.  

(When I was starting out and testing different things, I was nervous—my parol might not be well-received. But when they saw it, they immediately pegged a price to it. Being praised really lifts one’s spirits.) 

What he once perceived to be a chore that needed to be done for the sake of making a living suddenly evolved into a deep passion he developed a fondness for. “Natuwa na [rinako kasi nakaka-enjoy gawin,” Bonilla expresses. 

(Eventually, I felt happy because I started enjoying what I was doing.) 

A festive artform 

Over the years, a parade of parol designs have passed through Bonilla’s workshop, though not all of them are Christmas-themed. While most parols bear similar motifs, with capiz shells cut to look like stars, bells, and other Yuletide symbols, some variants go beyond the traditional designs to ones that carry deeper meanings. As an example, Bonilla cites a particular type of parol that became popular during the 2016 Presidential Elections, which he believed to have been designed to commemorate the then newly-elected President—inspired by the Philippine flag, the parol’s shells were painted in blues, yellows, and reds, and featured a sun and stars. 

Of all the different parols he’s made, however, Bonilla considers Starlight to be his favorite design. Beginning with a straight-edged star, which is then overlapped by soft-cornered star shapes, the pattern repeats until the parol forms a larger, ten-pointed star with alternating sharp and rounded corners. Filling in the frame are pearl white capiz shells, their polished surfaces lit up by the warm glow of the lantern lights.  

Bonilla finds this mosaic of layered stars to be a relatively modest yet technically challenging design. “Ang linis po kasi niyang tignanPuting-puti lang siyaMaliwanagkumbagaWalang ibang distraction, design, kulay,” he explains, adding that the design brings out the natural color of capiz shells, since no part of it is painted over. He further notes that such a display exudes “purity” to him, so he makes sure to choose the best-looking capiz shells to preserve the unblemished aesthetic of these Starlight parols. 

(The design looks very pristine. It’s completely white, giving it a bright, shiny appearance, with no unnecessary distractions, designs, or colors.)  

Christmas for a parol maker 

As the Christmas season beckons, parol makers start bustling around their workshops, chasing after rush orders. At peak production, Bonilla and his team craft around 500 parols in two weeks; after each accomplished order, a new one comes in almost immediately. Bonilla admits that a bit of quality had to be sacrificed in order to meet the large demand, exclaiming with laughter, “Basta mukhang parol, okay na.” 

(As long as it looks like a parol, that’s already okay.) 

After long hours crafting parols, Bonilla comes home every night to be greeted by the light of even more lanterns. He shares that the holiday season makes for longer moments spent with the family, filled with shared laughter, while parols light up every corner of their home, enshrouding their celebration with lively colors. These parols have been up since the previous Christmas and haven’t been taken off their hooks since—as if the spirit of Christmas never leaves their home. 

Bonilla personally believes that parols contribute a great deal to kindling the Christmas spirit in the Philippines. “Nakasanayan na ng tao na pagdating ng paskomailaw,” he explains. “Parang masigla ‘yung bawat tao ‘pag nakakakita ng iba’t ibang klase ng ilaw, ‘yung kumukutikutitap.” 

(People have gotten used to experiencing the Christmas season as a brightly-lit event. It’s like everyone is livelier when they see all sorts of twinkling lights.) 

Lighting up the Filipino holidays 

Parols have been a part of the holiday festivities in the country for so long, and Christmas celebrations in many Filipino households are just not quite the same without a parol adorning a window sill or veranda roof, their lights glimmering in beautiful patterns against the night sky.  

It’s a tradition that may very well be present for decades to come. As Bonilla affirms, “Tuloy-tuloy lang pa rin dapat ang paggawa ng parol dito sa Pilipinas. Parang ‘yung tradition ng Christmas, hindi po siya ‘yung katulad ng nawawala na.”  

(The art of parol making in the Philippines should continue to live on, just like how Christmas itself has become a recurring tradition that never fades away.) 

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