It is said that the city of Lyon was spared from the plague by the grace of the Virgin Mary in 1643. The tradition of lighting candles in return for the favor goes back to the mid-1800s, around the time the city erected the Basilica of Fourvière in her honor – perched atop the city’s highest hill and featuring a statue of the Virgin that seems to watch over the city and its central square, Place Bellecour.
I remember feeling homesick and a little bleak that first year we moved to Lyon after settling in France. The end of October came and went with nobody celebrating Halloween – I searched all over and couldn’t even find a proper pumpkin to carve for the kids, which I found strangely depressing. And then it was November, which for me is always the hardest month of the year – it’s cold and dark and you know the shortest days of the year are yet to come.
So I was thrilled to learn about the Fête des Lumières. The tradition is that on December 8th the Lyonnais fill their windows with ‘lumignons’ – candles in squat glass holders – of different colors. Like most city-dwellers, we lived in an old apartment building with several tall French windows to line with candles. Everyone participates so the effect is quite stunning, with entire facades lit by candles. Then you go out and walk around and perhaps head over to le vieux Lyon, the old town, where les illuminations (light displays) are the most elaborate. The air is fragrant with the smell of roasted chestnuts.
The event has grown over the years, and according the city of Lyon now attracts some 4 million visitors. It’s been a few years since I last went but even then, the crowds had gotten too big for my liking. They now spread it over several days so as to get the most tourists in as possible. Some of the light shows are positively spectacular though – so if you don’t mind crowds, it’s worth planning a trip to Lyon in early December to catch the displays.
La Fête des Lumières is perfectly timed to mark the start of the Christmas season – along with the collection of lumignons, I know it’s time to get out my holiday decorations and get serious about shopping. Even though we moved away from Lyon a few years ago, I kept the candles and light them every year.
I’m not a religious person but I give thanks each year for this lovely tradition.