Modern Parol

In the early 1900’s, a Swiss textile chemist, Jacques Brandenberger invented the cellophane, which is a transparent film. He also invented the machines for its mass production. Cellophane became very cheap and were used as waterproof packaging material for products that were imported into the Philippines. This cheap, attractive and glossy wrapping paper came in different colors and became a common decorative material for the parol. Thus, the original colors of the parol slowly evolved into a more shiny appearance.

The widespread use of electricity came to Manila a decade after the Philippines was won by the United States during the Spanish-American war in 1898. The Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company from New Jersey (which later became Meralco) brought electric generators, wires and lights to electrify the country. As incandescent lights became readily available, Filipino ingenuity created another evolutionary phase in the parol’s image; it became much brighter than its predecessors. Moreover, the more pliant and more manageable copper wires replaced the bamboo, and allowed eloquent designs. Hence, the brighter lights, together with cellophane colors became more common window adornments during the Christmas season. The traditional parol of bamboo and papel de Japon succumbed to technological changes.

The modern parol has taken various shapes, sizes and designs. The traditional five-sided star geometry is still predominant, but modern parols now have assorted snowflake geometries, and multi-dimensional forms, such as those found along the newly restored Bay walk on Roxas Blvd. In San Fernando, Pampanga, one could appreciate a dazzling array of microprocessor-controlled kaleidoscopic lights from giant parols on flatbed trucks. They have their own electric generators to power the lights that could be seen many kilometers away. Some office buildings in Manila and the suburbs form giant stars made of either multi-colored or single-color lights that hang from their rooftops. Some lights cover half of the building. Sometimes the lights cover the entire building. A more common design would be to drop from the roof about six or seven strings of lights shaped like a ray of light that points toward a life-size manger at the ground floor of the building. A giant lighted parol on top of the building, a five-pointed star that gloriously proclaims the birth of our Lord Jesus, is the source of the ray of light.

The art of parol making is created and enjoyed by many Filipinos for many reasons. But one thing that the modern art of parol making does is extend and expand our common visual language, the language of light.

Artists show us new visual ideas that may seem shocking at the start, but over time, we absorb such visual data and ideas and they become part of our vocabulary. Modern parol artists present us new ways to see familiar things. Sometimes it is difficult to interpret the artist’s intentions when we see new or unconventional artistic creations. We often wonder what purposes their art fulfills when we see sequenced lighting and seemingly random choices of colors. Fortunately, we know that parol art is a vehicle for religious ritual; it is a means for conveying the message of Christ, through light.

Over the past decade, Parol art in the Philippines evolved with technological progress. We commemorate the birth of Jesus through modern images that are pleasing to the eye; to portray beauty and perfection. Each parol art has a story to tell. And light can tell stories. They can convey intense emotion through dramatic or exaggerated color, light, form, and/or addition of various other elements. When we see modern lighted capiz parols, we think of them as the artist’s medium for expressing his interpretation of the subject matter, which is the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Capiz Shells

Capiz is a natural product. This material comes from a marine bivalve having translucent shells, which are commonly called mother-of-pearl shells. They thrive in coastal waters, particularly in Capiz, a province in Panay island in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines. Capiz faces the Sibuyan Sea to the North and bordered by Aklan and Antique to the west, and Iloilo to the south. In 1570, Miguel Lopez de Legaspi became the governor-general of Las Islas Filipinas and moved his seat of government from Cebu to Capiz, which is closer to a more progressive place called May-Nilad Lusong (now called the island of Luzon) in the North, which he planned to invade. Spanish technologists used the large shells, which are by-products of their bountiful harvests from the nearby delta, as translucent material for window panes. The design caught on, and even to this day, Capiz shells are used in numerous products and ornaments.

The Capiz shells are calcium carbonate crystals. It is still a scientific mystery how these crystals grow, but a new study published in the journal Science in 09 April 2004 suggests that these shell-building crystals are formed in a special class of blood cells. Author Andrew Mount from Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina said these crystal-carrying cells “look like diamonds that are crawling around.” When light shines upon the Capiz shells, its translucent crystal structure allows part of light energy to flow through it, and passes that radiant energy to the beholder.