The Festival of Lights in Lyon (“Fête des Lumières” in French) is the most awaited public event in the Rhône-Alpes region and draws several million people onto the illuminated streets of the city. For locals and tourists alike, this celebration of light unveils the architectural treasures of the city in an unexpected way, through the illuminating of monuments, streets, hills and river banks.
This event is entirely unique in France because of the sheer size of such a task involving the projection of colourful images and videos in various locations all across the city. Because of the proximity of the date to 25 December and the presence of lights, it is often believed (by non-Lyon natives!) that the Festival of Lights is linked to Christmas.
Its origins are linked to a Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary, to whom the city of Lyon was devoted during the Middle-Ages.
The tradition of 8 December
In 1852, the old squared bell of the latter chapel of Fourvière had been rebuilt and it was decided to crown it with a new statue of the Virgin Mary, overlooking the whole city. Joseph-Hugues Fabish was the sculptor commissioned to create it and the initial date of its installation was set as 8 September, the day marking the nativity of the Virgin.
However, in August, the banks of the River Saône overflowed and the worksite where the statue was to be sculpted was flooded. As a result, the Cardinal de Bonald made the decision to postpone the ceremony until 8 December, a date which also celebrated the Immaculate Conception.
On 8 December, amid the sound of bells and cannons, the bell tower and the statue were blessed during a religious ceremony by the Archbishop of Lyon. The celebrations also included the plan for a fantastic illumination of the city at night, eagerly awaited by the local population. However, it poured with rain for the entire day. Consequently, the religious authorities decided to cancel the night illuminations and celebrations.
However, in the early evening, the rain stopped and the people of Lyon were so overjoyed with this unexpected change of weather that they spontaneously aligned thousands of little lights (“des lumignons”, in French) on their windowsills and balconies before taking to the streets. The church leaders followed the excitement of the people lit up the chapel of Fourvière against the night sky.
This was the first time they ever did so and, to this day, this tradition has continued to occur as soon as night falls on 8 December.
The inhabitants of Lyon have collected their sets of lumignons over generations. Shops around the city of Lyon will also start selling them as soon as November beings. Lumignons are stained or clear glasses in which candles (often stout and cinnamon-coated) are lit.
The Festival of Lights in Lyon today
The municipality of Lyon’s participation in this event began in 1989, and the Festival of Lights has now evolved into a major tourist attraction for the whole Rhône-Alpes region. The two main stages of the illuminations take place on the Basilica of Fourvière and at the Place des Terreaux. The combination of continuous lighting and video effects, visual arts and creative audio features displays Lyon in a very spectacular way.
Today, the Festival of Lights takes place around 8 December and lasts for four days. In order to avoid the crowds, it is a good idea to plan your visit for Wednesday 9 or Thursday 10 December. The Festival starts on Place Bellecour on 8 December, where the lighting will be turned on.
The Festival includes over 80 lighting scenes all across the city of Lyon. Surprisingly, the energy cost of the whole event accounts for only €3,500 (that is, 0.1%) of the annual consumption of Lyon’s street lighting. During the Festival, there are more than 4 million visitors strolling the streets of Lyon.
In 2015, the Festival of Lights was initially planned from 5 to 8 December. Due to the recent Paris attacks, the celebrations are cancelled and postponed to December 2016.
In 2016, the Festival of Lights will take place from Thursday 8 to Saturday 10 December from 8pm to midnight.
Lyon’s lighting plan
The lighting up of Lyon’s famous monuments does not occur only on 8 December. Like many other tourist towns in France, an ongoing effort is made to reveal the city’s architectural treasures throughout the rest of the year ‘without spoiling them’.