Ottawa couple keeps Filipino traditions alive with lantern-making business

Jemlyn and Melita Demegillo have been making traditional Filipino lanterns called parols since their first Christmas in Canada as a way to stay connected to their roots. Making parols for others has turned into a years-long tradition that gave the Ottawa couple hope during tough times, especially after each one of them battled cancer.

Jemlyn, 79, and Melita, 76, immigrated to Canada in 2012 and have been making these lanterns ever since. The colourful star-shaped lanterns are used during Simbang Gabi, the religious nine-day observational period in anticipation of Christmas eve.

A staple in the Filipino culture, the Demegillos continued to make these lanterns every year and the more they did, the more their friends and neighbours began to notice. They eventually opened their own small business, making and selling the parols.

“When we migrated here in 2012 it was the first time I made two parols and now it’s still hung there on our porch,” Jemlyn Demegillo told CTVNews.ca in a video interview.

“Our Filipino friends saw the parol and then they asked me to make it for them and that was the beginning.”

As beautiful as they look, the parols require much work before they can reach their final form. The lanterns are made out of bamboo, colourful yarn, decorative fabric and wreaths. One can take between two to three days to make and that’s only if the Demegillos are able to find all of the materials on time.

Parols are traditionally made with Filipino bamboo which is often larger and stronger than other types of bamboo found in Canadians hardware stores.

The Demegillos’ son, Uzi, said this specific bamboo can be difficult to find in stores or online and he has even had to travel to find the right material.

“We have massive bamboo as big as your arm or leg and here it is very tiny and small and some of them are out of stock so sometimes I even have to go to Quebec to buy the bamboo sticks. It’s only an hour away but we do have to travel for it,” Uzi explained.

The Demegillos often make 10 parols a year but in 2017 they had to take a break after Jemlyn was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. To make matters worse, just as he was recovering, Melita was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer the very next year.

“It was a rough two years for the whole family, I mean he was just recovering then she was diagnosed with her disease right after,” said Uzi. Luckily, both of his parents underwent a successful surgery.

“I’m very much thankful for them (their children) because all the way they supported us during our operation,” said Jemlyn.

After their surgeries and with the support of their family, the Demegillos were back on their feet, but only to be faced with another challenge: the pandemic.

COVID-19 had ruined their yearly visit to the Philippines, but being away from home never stopped them from continuing their traditions.

“Only last year when the pandemic happened we were not able to go to the Philippines and to reduce that stress we tried to make as many patrols as we can,” Jemlyn said.

To make up for the last few difficult years, the Demegillos decided to make even more parols for different holidays, not just Christmas. A few of their Indian friends requested the lanterns for their own Diwali celebrations.

Uzi says these lanterns have been able to transcend cultures because of their message of light and hope.

“In their advanced age, if they can survive cancer we can survive anything and we can survive this pandemic and that’s why we’ve been inspired to make more parols for everybody, not just Filipinos,” said Uzi.