The “ber” months are the busiest for Canada-based Ilonggo couple Jemlyn and Melita Demegillo. It’s the time of the year when the septuagenarians spend a lot of time in their workshop as orders for their Christmas parol start to pour in.
The Demegillos have been based in Ottawa, Canada with two of their children for the past nine years. Tatay Jemlyn started to make the traditional Filipino parols when they moved to Canada in 2012. It was their first time to celebrate Christmas away from their hometown of Iloilo City. So in order to feel less homesick and to feel the spirit of Pinoy Christmas, he decided to make a parol for their home.
“First and last time kong gumawa ng parol sa Pilipinas nasa elementary pa ako, may parol-making contest,” he says, laughing at the recollection. But since he would often see parol-makers in Iloilo City during holiday season, he found it easy to build one from memory.
The first parol he made in Canada nine years ago was about four feet in size, which the family displayed prominently in their porch. When kababayans in Canada saw the lantern, they asked if Tatay Jemlyn could also make a parol for them. “Doon na nagsimula ang lahat,” he tells ANCX, smiling. “Ako lang ata ang nagawa niyan dito.” Tatay Jemlyn says people in Canada don't celebrate Christmas the way Filipinos do in the Philippines.
Each year, the couple would make about 10 parols, and they would sell them to family and friends. “Sobrang happy ang mga customers and friends namin. Proud na proud sila na they have their own parol. It’s just like nasa Pinas daw during Christmas,” says their youngest son Uzi.
The Demegillo parols aren’t very easy to make. The frames are made of bamboo, yes, but they don’t use the usual papel de japon. They are woven with yarns so they are sturdier. This way it could withstand the snow, says the padre de familia. As a matter of fact, the first parol he made nine years ago is still very much in good shape.
Because their parols are a little more special, each one could take about three days to make. Tatay Jemlyn builds the frame and Nanay Melita decorates the Christmas lantern.
This year, they will be making about 40 parols to accommodate requests. This includes one for an Indian neighbor. The Demegillos had previously made one for said neighbor—it’s already on display in his home—but this order is for sending to an Indian friend based in Montreal. Apparently, as the Demegillos would find out, the Filipino parol somehow looks like the star-shaped lanterns seen all over India during Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light.
Iloilo to Canada
Back home in Iloilo City, the Demegillo couple used to run an appliance and furniture store. Nanay Melita was a retired teacher while Tatay Jemlyn was once a soldier and a teacher before he ventured into business.
But since the two were getting more advanced in age, and running a business can be quite stressful, their children said why not retire and migrate to Canada. All four Demegillo kids were done with their studies anyway. So in 2012, the second eldest child Eva June, a nurse in Canada, petitioned her parents together with youngest brother Uzi Jem, now also working as a nurse in the North American country.
“Mahirap talaga,” Tatay Jemlyn says with a gentle laughter, describing his adjustment to life in Canada. His wife, who is seated beside him during the interview, is smiling. “Wala pa ding kasing sarap ang buhay sa atin sa Pilipinas,” he adds.
“Ang pinakamahirap para sa akin yung pagkain. Ibang-iba ang pagkain. Hanggang ngayon, hinahanap ko pa din ang pagkain sa atin at saka yung weather. Pag winter, ang ginaw-ginaw dito—naabot ng -40°C. At saka yung snow, mahirap.” That is why, prior to the pandemic, they would come home to Iloilo to enjoy a six-month vacation. The last time they were back in the Philippines was February last year.
With their happy disposition, we wouldn’t have guessed Tatay Jemlyn had suffered from Stage 4 lung cancer in 2017, and Nanay Melita Stage 2 breast cancer in 2018. Both had undergone surgeries and have recovered very well.
“Wala na akong left lung,” says the Demegillo patriarch. Uzi says his father is currently on immunotherapy, a type of treatment that helps the immune system fight the cancer. Mrs. Demegillo, on the other hand, had undergone mastectomy and continues to take oral medications.
Uzi recalls how devastated the family was when they found out about their father’s condition. “There was a time na kaka-discharge lang namin and pabalik-balik pa rin kami sa hospital for follow-ups. When we got home, sinabi ni Tatay sa car, ‘To, ayoko na. Pagod na ako,’” Uzi recalls. “My sister and I looked at each other. I just lightened up the moment by saying na itulog nya lang ang pagod. We knew then that he wanted to give up.”
It has been almost four years since those difficult days. “My Tatay is a living miracle,” says Uzi. “He has bounced back to normal.” Both are looking healthy when ANCX met them for the virtual interview.
Uzi describes his Tatay as very charismatic and charming. “He’s a people person. Very generous. But fierce and strict at times. His word is law. LOL,” the younger Demegillo says via FB messenger.
“Si Nanay, caring and compassionate. Practical and skillful. Meticulous at times. Happy person din. Natural na masayahin sila. Tatay has a good sense of humor and life of the party palagi. Nanay loves to laugh,” he adds.
Uzi says it was a blessing they had moved to Canada before their parents got sick. “Malaki ang pasasalamat namin sa Ate ko at dinala niya kami dito. The health care here is amazing. Libre lahat, as in lahat, sa pagpagamot ni Tatay, because it was taken care of by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan. From doctor to surgery to recovery. Parking lang binayaran namin,” the son says. Canada's universal health-care system is paid for through taxes.
It was an advantage that there are two nurses in the family. “At least we know and understand what is going on with Tatay and what to do to help him recover. Then, we had to take care of Nanay din,” says Uzi. Cancer definitely changed their life as a family. “We learned to cherish every waking moment with them,” he adds. The situation strengthened their faith and their bond.
In Canada when most people don’t celebrate Christmas, the Demegillos would make sure to celebrate the occasion by continuing the traditions they grew up with. Nanay Melita would cook dinuguan and popular Ilonggo dishes like arroz Valenciana, pancit molo and batchoy with matching puto. Other Ilonggos in Canada would visit and celebrate with them. “Nage-exchange gift din kami, potluck,” says Nanay Melita.
These days, hanging their parols is more than just a simple tradition for the Demegillos of Canada. It has become a symbol of hope. “There is light,” says Uzi. “There is hope. You just have to look up.”
[Photos courtesy of Uzi Demegillo]