Lyon Festival of Light

6521314685_d3ac7f9bc1 From a street, view of the Basilique of Fourvière illuminated

This article is in English. Click here to read it in French.

If one day you’re in Lyon on December 8, you could by nightfall have a nice surprise.

You would see, little by little, the edges of windows light up. You would see one by one, people light small candles and place them in small glasses (the “lumignons”) along their windows. This day they celebrate something, this day, for over a century, they have been giving thanks.

So who? Why?

Legend has it that they would like to thank the Virgin for saving Lyon from the plague. Historically this isn’t entirely accurate.

The story begins at the end of the Renaissance, at the 17th century. With the plague then ravaging Europe, thousands of Lyon’s people died and half the population of Lyon was decimated.

After having initially placed their hopes in the Faculty of Medicine, on 12th March 1643 Prevost and Aldermen (mayor and deputy mayor at the time) turned in desperation to the Virgin Mary. Aldermen undertook to erect two statues of the Virgin, and vowed that they, and all their successors would go to all the festivals of the Nativity of Our Lady (September 8th, the day of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary). They would attend Mass and pray in the chapel of Fourvière (dedicated since Antiquity to the Virgin). They would offer 7 pounds (just over 3 kg) of white wax candles and torches, and a “gold crown in the sun” (name of the coinage at that time). For all this, she would offer her protection to the city of Lyon.

And, while the plague continued to rage in France, that year in Lyon it stopped.

6521330375_3d1a372e7d One of the place Sathonay’s installations.

The Aldermen kept their promise and every September 8, at the “Grand Mass” of the Nativity of Mary, a gold crown is given by the city to the bishop of Lyon.

But so what? No candles? No, not yet. But Lyon’s citizens felt now under the protection of the Virgin Mary and connected to her.

The Lyonnais developed the habit of praying to her in the chapel of Fourvière so that she would take care of them in their daily lives. The years passed and the pilgrims were many so the statue needed restoration. In 1852 after the restoration of the steeple, a statue of Mary in golden bronze was erected.

The date of September 8 was chosen. However, a few days before, the sky rumbled, the city was struck by a downpour and the Saône (one of the two rivers of Lyon) overflowed. A new date was selected: December 8, feast of Our Lady (Our Lady of Advent).

But again, that day, a terrible storm arrived, and threatened the Saône once again.

The chiefs still wanted to push back the date but, miraculously, in the afternoon the bad weather subsided. So by nightfall, Lyon’s people, gratefully, put candles and candleholders (“lumignons”) on their windows and left them burning until morning.

Thereby the Illuminations were born.

6521319989_e1abe4b4fc Installation in the yard of the Hôtel de ville.

Today it has become a secular event called the Festival of Light. It occurs on December 8 and all the people of Lyon place these little candles on the edges of their windows and illuminate the city.

And how big it has become! Sixteen years ago when I arrived in Lyon, you could go for a walk, drink mulled wine in the streets and watch the fireworks. Historic monuments were lit up in a special way for the occasion but it was nothing compared to what it has become!

These days the city is transformed. Artists, designers, lighting specialists and architects from around the world transform Lyon with light.

Streets, monuments, bridges, squares; each corner of the city is full of grandiose or poetic installations that one explores on a magical ride.

It has become so big that the festival now lasts four days to accommodate the three to four million visitors, both French and foreign.

But only the December 8, people from Lyon light their lumignons.

And I know that even when they’re away from home, in another city or another continent, they will not fail to do it.

So next year on this day, look out the window, and if you see a candle in a small glass shining on the edge of a window, you’ll know that behind it there’s a French person, that it comes from Lyon and you’ll know why.

About the Contributor

Armance Beauchamp

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  1. Emmanuelle Tremolet Jan 11, 2012 at 2:38 PM - Reply

    Super article Armance ! Je connaissais la fête des Lumières à Lyon mais pas l’histoire de cette fête. Vos articles sont vraiment très interressants, on y apprend toujours quelque chose et ils sont très esthétiques. J’ai des amis à Lyon, j’y suis souvent allée mais à travers vos articles je découvre une autre facette de cette ville. Maintenant, elle est sélectionnée dans les villes où j’aimerai vivre en France. Merci.Bonne journée. A bientôt

  2. Armance Beauchamp Jan 11, 2012 at 4:12 PM - Reply

    Merci beaucoup Emmanuelle ! C’est effectivement une ville qui offre beaucoup : culture, art, gastronomie, sport… et qui ne cesse réhabiliter les quartiers où il ne faisait pas bon se balader. Il ne manque à Lyon, pour moi, que l’océan !

  3. Ann Nasser Jan 11, 2012 at 11:56 PM - Reply

    Très intéressant d’apprendre l’histoire de la fête. J’ai toujours eu envie d’aller mais j’ai raté la dernière fois et cette année il faut que j’aille.

  4. Julie Chamand Jan 12, 2012 at 10:40 AM - Reply

    Ça a l’air tellement beau ! J’adore découvrir comment telle ou telle tradition est née.
    A propos, j’avais entendu dire dans un documentaire (ne me demandez pas le nom) qu’un architecte fanatique de Lyon voulait recréer entièrement la ville à Dubaï ! Crazy huh ? Il faudrait que je me renseigne pour voir si ça va aboutir…

  5. Carolyne Kauser-Abbott Jan 13, 2012 at 11:43 AM - Reply

    Armance thanks for this post. My husband and I went to the Festival of Lights in December 2010. We were literally overwhelmed by the incredible show. Just when we though the evening was over we were treated to this great street music. Enjoy!

  6. Armance Beauchamp Feb 19, 2012 at 3:47 AM - Reply

    Yes Caroline you’re right; I saw them last year, a very good moment ! 🙂

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