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Lyon’s Festival of Lights: A French Holiday Tradition
Séverine Perronnet

Séverine Perronnet

Editor, Cultural Perspectives at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Born and raised in Lyon, France, Severine met her Indian husband in Beijing, China, and raises her daughter in Brussels, Belgium. Read More under "Meet the Team".
Séverine Perronnet

December 8th is a special date for anyone coming from my hometown of Lyon, in France.

It is a simple tradition that I have seen exported to wherever people from Lyon have settled down, be it in another city or even another country! Even if they might not really remember why, they remember how, and it is a strong bond to the culture of their city of birth.

How it all began

Legend says that in the middle ages, an epidemic of plague struck the southern part of the kingdom of France. The good people of Lyon prayed to the Virgin Mary to be spared by the epidemic, and they were miraculously saved.

As a way to thank her, it was decided that a statue of the Virgin Mary, made of gold, would be added atop the chapel dedicated to her on September 8th, her birthday. Unfortunately, the river Saône, which flows through the city, was overflowing, so the ceremony was postponed to December 8th, the day of Immaculate Conception, three months later.

It was decided that a statue of the Virgin Mary, made of gold, would be added atop the chapel dedicated to her on September 8th. #Lyon #France #FestivalofLights Click To Tweet

On this day too, however, the weather wasn’t good, and the authorities were ready to postpone the dedication by another week, when suddenly the skies cleared. Spontaneously, the people put candles on their windows and lit up Bengal fires or flares, as it was customary to do for any big occasion, like a royal visit – or the inauguration of the statue of a Saint. The tradition was thus started, and has been kept alive every year to this day.

 

Lyon, France

Photo Credit: Rahul Venkit, 2012

How we celebrate

On December 8th each year, we, the people of Lyon, turn off the light in our homes and light up lumignons (“little lights”). These are small candles, very similar to tea lights, and we put them in special coloured glasses that we use only for the occasion. The lumignons are then lined up on the window sills and along the balconies, looking like colourful garlands of light.

The lumignons are lined up on the window sills and along the balconies, looking like colourful garlands of light. #Lyon #FestivalofLights #France #FrenchTraditions #FrenchHoliday Click To Tweet

I remember the first time I was allowed to drop the lit-up candle at the bottom of the coloured glass, how I had to try many times because the flame kept being blown away. I remember my four-year-old self proudly holding the glass without burning my hands, and putting it on our window sill. It was a privilege that my then two-year-old sister didn’t have yet.

I remember my four-year-old self proudly holding the glass without burning my hands, and putting it on our window sill. It was a privilege that my then two-year-old sister didn’t have yet. 

After that, we would wrap up in warm winter coats and boots, and walk to our little town’s center, where shops were especially open for the occasion. Their windows were beautifully decorated and they would give away goodies and food. I fondly remember the quenelles de brochet (a local delicacy made of pike) from our local caterer, who would be making them on the spot. They would burn our fingers and tongues, but they were really good and kept us warm. We would also get tangerines, hot chocolate, chestnuts, and papillotes (local sweets wrapped in golden paper), and mulled wine for the grown-ups.

They would burn our fingers and tongues, but they were really good and kept us warm. Click To Tweet

 

Lyon Festival of Lights

Photo Credit: Rahul Venkit, 2012

Perpetuating and re-inventing the traditional

After I left my hometown, I continued putting up lumignons every year, without fault, no matter where I lived. I’ve celebrated the festival of lights in different countries and different settings, but it has remained a meaningful event that I continue to celebrate.

When I left for Beijing, China, I didn’t take lumignons in my bag, so I had to rely on what I had. I recycled alimentary glass jars, coloured them with paint, and got tea lights. I put up my little lights on my windows, with two other friends from my university.

 


Now that I live in Brussels, the capital of Europe, I still do it, and I know all my friends living abroad or in other cities do so as well. Even though we might not be religious, it is part of our tradition, and for us, it is when Christmas celebrations really begin.

A festival that required the lighting of diyas or little oil lamps was being celebrated in India the year I was getting married to my Indian husband. These little oils lamps are made of clay, similar in size to lumignons. My whole family had traveled from France for our wedding, and still, so far away from home, we were able to celebrate the 8th of December. That was my Indian 8th of December, a very meaningful and moving experience.

 

Vieux-Lyon

Photo Credit: Vieux-Lyon by Michael Muraz. See license here.


The first 8th of December we spent after our daughter was born was also very special to me too. We weren’t able to travel to Lyon, but my father came to visit us, instead, and the three of us, my father, my daughter, and
I, lit up the candles. It was very meaningful – three generations of people from Lyon, perpetuating the tradition, even far from home. My daughter may not have technically been born in Lyon, she was actually born in Brussels, but she’s from there by descent!

Of course, our daughter was too small to carry the lumignon by herself, let alone light up the candles. She wasn’t even a year old! But she observed with a lot of attention, and with my father’s help, she held a lumignon and observed the flame dancing.

As she is half Indian, she gets to celebrate two Festivals of Light every year: Diwali, the Indian New Year, and Lyon’s Festival of Lights. She is now old enough to manipulate the candles and she takes her job very seriously when it comes to lighting them up and putting them at the correct place – be it around the Hindu altar or on the window sill.

An International Festive Event

 

Nowadays, the Lyon Festival of Lights has become a big artistic and commercial event, drawing crowds from abroad in busses, trains, and even planes! The event takes place over four days and light shows are put up to entertain the crowds. It is the fourth biggest festive event in the world, after the Kumbh Mela, the Rio Carnival, and the Oktoberfest.

It is a wonderful experience, but it has become overcrowded. People going there don’t know the real meaning of the festival and just come around to see the light shows. They are, of course, cutting edge and mesmerizing. But to me, all of this has become a bit too much.

 

Cathédrale Saitn-Jean

Photo Credit: Cathédrale Saitn-Jean by Michael Muraz. See license here.

 

To find out what the Lyon Festival of Light is really about, you’ll have to take a stroll in the quieter, smaller streets. This is where you’ll find windows lined up with lumignons, and neighbours enjoying mulled wine, laughing together. You’ll have to push the doors of churches, where people pray in silence and leave lumignons on the church’s door steps.

Recently, the festival has taken a new dimension. After the terrorist attacks that happened in Paris in early December 2015, the festivities were cancelled. But even though the touristy light shows were put off, the city of Lyon called its people to put lumignons on their windows, as a sign of support and remembrance. In a way, we are back to the beginning: candles as a way to remember.

 

Lyon festiva of lights

Photo Credit: Rahul Venkit, 2012

For more information: Check out Lyon’s official website for this event.

 

the author

Born and raised in Lyon, France, Severine met her Indian husband in Beijing, China, and raises her daughter in Brussels, Belgium. Read More under “Meet the Team”.

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