The Parols on Fifth Avenue

Outgoing Consul General Elmer Cato and wife Melanie Cato (in red dress) welcome guests to the consulate building amid the sparkle of the giant Christmas lantern. Philippine Consulate photo

By Claire Mercado-Obias

New York City during the holidays is as magical as how it is portrayed in the movies: sparkly lights, dazzling decorations, people dressed up like eskimos, young and old gliding on the skating rink, carols sung by a choir, the smell of fresh pine trees, the warmth of hot chocolate, and the possibility of snow. But not to be outdone by the elaborate store window displays and the Rockefeller Christmas Tree are the parols on 556 Fifth Avenue. This is where the Philippine Consulate General in New York is located. 

Throughout the year, Filipinos in the area come here to process passports or fulfill absentee voting. Visiting Pinoys from all over the world can’t help but take a photo at the entrance, right by the “Philippines” sign and the giant flag, as if paying respects to the mother ship. In many ways it is home away from home, especially when it is festooned with multiple parols. Like the star in Bethlehem, the parols beckon Filipinos, inviting them to enter, for the Philippine Consulate is also a place where our traditions are kept sacred.

In early December, they host the Simbang Gabi sa Konsulado, a series of nine evening novena masses in preparation for Christmas. On its 34th year, the theme was Pasko: Magdiwang, Magpasalamat at Magkaisa (Christmas: Celebrate, Give Thanks and Be One). In the thick of a busy season, it is always an opportunity to celebrate Christmas, Pinoy-style, through faith and fellowship.

Outgoing Consul General Elmer Cato helped us reflect on these Filipino traditions. 

CMO: The Philippine Consulate is decorated with colorful parols, and new ones were added this year.  Can you tell us more about your newest acquisitions?

ConGen Cato: Parols (Philippine Christmas lanterns) have adorned the Philippine Center during the holiday season as far back as the mid-1980s. But this is the first time we are having giant lanterns here on the East Coast. This was made possible by the Provincial Government of Pampanga through Governor Dennis Pineda who visited New York last year. What we have are actually mini-giant lanterns as these are smaller than the 15- to 24-foot diameter lanterns that we see during the annual Giant Lantern Festival, but these are bigger than the Christmas lanterns that we normally see in the Philippines and in other parts of the world. The biggest measures eight feet in diameter with close to a thousand light bulbs, while the other measures six feet tall with more than 500 light bulbs.

The star-shaped lanterns adorning the Philippine Consulate are a beacon of hope and home. Photos by Claire Mercado-Obias

With many Filipinos working in New York missing their families and friends in the Philippines, during the Christmas season, the Philippine Consulate General in New York wanted to spread a little holiday cheer – the Filipino way – by having giant parols light up the street outside the Philippine Center.

For the Filipino, the parol is a symbol of hope, an expression of faith, and a reminder to remain resilient amidst personal hardships and societal challenges. This is the same message the Philippine Consulate General in New York wishes to share with everyone in the United States. 

CMO: Why is it important to uphold Filipino traditions like the parol display and Simbang Gabi in the Philippine Consulate year after year?

ConGen Cato: These most cherished events – the Simbang Gabi sa Konsulado and the Parol Lighting – are a means to honor our Filipino heritage and demonstrate our Filipino spirituality despite being away from the motherland. These Filipino traditions preserve and promote our unique Filipino identity as Filipino immigrants continue to make the United States of America their home.  

CMO: How might we encourage the younger generation to appreciate and continue these traditions?

ConGen Cato: For this, we would need the support of the Filipino community to bring their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to community and cultural events at the Philippine Center, such as our Paaralan Sa Konsulado, Sinehan sa Konsulado, and other cultural events, apart from the Simbang Gabi sa Konsulado. By attending these events, the Filipino-American youth would realize themselves the importance of staying connected to their roots. 

At the Kalayaan Hall, where the Simbang Gabi takes place, an altar and manger were set up in the front and a row of nine different parols were displayed at the back. Nine unique parols, each one decorated by the groups that sponsored the novena masses, and a new one lit during a parol lighting ceremony before the mass. It was a solemn moment to admire the handmade parols and their meaning in our modern times, capped with a blessing by the priest.

Each parol also represented the values that we Filipinos hold dear: pagmamahalan (love), pamilya (family), kapayapaan (peace), pakikipagkapwa-tao (respect for others), pag-asa (hope), pananampalataya (faith), pagkakaisa (unity), kaluwalhatian (glory), and pasasalamat (gratitude).

May we all receive these this Christmas and in the coming New Year.

Claire Mercado-Obias is a writer, food stylist, and pastry chef. Her favorite Christmas traditions are Simbang Gabi, decorating with parol ornaments made from capiz, and feasting on Bibingka. 


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