My father’s hand firmly holding mine was the only connection I had with the world surrounding me. As a child, being in a dense crowd of grown-ups felt like being in a hole three feet deep in the ground—all I could see were legs and backs, slowly moving in a penguin-like walk. It was disconcerting to be brought back into reality so suddenly after such a spectacular show. Only a few minutes earlier, brilliant sound and colors turned the buildings around me into a giant canvas of light. At the climax of the show, the four horses of the famous La Fontaine Bartholdi unfroze from their pedestal to come alive in a wild race around the captivated crowd of the square.
We finally reached the square’s exit, where we were immediately greeted by the smell of warm wine and chestnuts being sold on every block in the area.
Lyon, France celebrates December 8 the way some people decorate Christmas trees— unquestioning because it is a custom. In the early 1990s, Mayor Michel Noir decided to revamp the Festival of Lights to rejuvenate the city and make it shine on the international stage. Carried on every year on a larger scale than its successors, the festival has grown into an extravagant tourist phenomenon, and now lasts four days. Growing from 1 million tourists in 2002 to four million in 2008, the festival now creates transportation issues in the town of only 500,000 inhabitants. Today, Lyon’s antique Roman buildings, riverfronts, bridges, and squares light up with countless lights and hundreds of installations, sculptures, and works of art displayed around the city. Terreaux Square in downtown Lyon is one of the most crowded places in the city during the festival. Terreaux lights up every year with a magical show of music and light, giving life to several themes, tales, and characters projected on the walls of the city hall and the Museum of Fine Arts. Several Christian churches are lit up with projections on their frontages, shifting the lines of the buildings to accentuate its architecture.
These “Illuminations” have become a competition of creativity for local and international artists who have to defend their projects in an annual contest held by the city council to be able to display them at the festival.
“It’s an ideal playground for someone like me who is interested in creating things that are original and colorful,” says Jacques Rival, a French artist born in Lyon. With a degree in architecture, but attracted to fine arts, Rival focuses on the relation between art and the city, and the experience of art outside of galleries. For him, the way art is displayed in its environment is what gives it existence. “I am interested in art as an intermediary between audiences, as an indicator of atmospheres, and not as a finished and defined work within a museum or a gallery,” he says. Rival started working for the Festival of Lights in 2004 and did several projects in the following years. One of his creations, “I love Lyon,” was displayed as one of the festival’s headlines in 2006. Rival had the idea of locking up Lyon’s 18-foot equestrian statue of Louis XIV in a giant snow globe, with the words “I love Lyon” written in pink letters on its base. “I Love Lyon” is one of the most popular pieces in the history of the festival, and it was renewed in 2007. “Often, we bring back a snow globe to remember the place,” says Rival. “Here the snowball plays on the notions of past and present.”
Remembrance is at the heart of the Festival of Lights. Before the city council transformed the festival into a touristic event, Lyon celebrated the city’s culture and history on December 8 for over 150 years. And at the origins of this urban festival was a religious commemoration.
In 1643, the plague was spreading throughout Lyon. Fearing a mass epidemic, the magistrates of the city’s council decided to climb onto Notre-Dame Chapel on Fourvière Hill to make an offering to the Virgin Mary and left the city’s fate up to her. The pandemic eventually dissipated and, believing it was a miracle, people wished to repeat the procession every year to commemorate the event. “Mary became the central character of Lyon’s religiousness, and the belief in her protection stayed deeply rooted in collective memory,” says Bruno Benoit, a history teacher at Sciences Po Lyon and the author of The Novel of Lyon.
After the French Revolution stopped the annual celebration, the tradition took up again in 1848. For the occasion, the city planned communal festivities and the erection of a golden bronze statue of the Virgin at the top of the new Fourviere Chapel tower. The first Festival of Lights, including fireworks and colored rockets, was celebrated on December 8, 1848. Then, another miracle happened—storms flooding the city cleared up by the end of the day. This strengthened the people of Lyon in their faith and loyalty to Mary, and they gathered in the streets with small candles, called lumignons. Since then, every December 8, Lyon’s citizens place candles on their windowsills. During the late nineteenth century, December 8 and its lumignons would become a symbol of the resistance of religion during the battles for secularism in France. Fortunately, those battles are now in the distant past.
“We went from the Festival of Light, the one that, according to the Christians, the Christ brought through his mother Mary,” says historian Jean-Dominique Durand, “To the Festival of Lights, with an ‘s’.”
Nowadays, the celebration’s religious background has become marginalized, and the Festival of Lights is a celebration for all. But December 8 stays deeply rooted in the city’s culture as a celebration that unites its people. “The images of this sharing, this fervor and devotion of the people of Lyon for a symbolic gestures, such as placing the lumignons, fascinated me from my earliest childhood,” says Rival. “In some ways, when I use the streets as a giant gallery, I try to recreate this same feeling of union on the scale of the city.”
If the population is now divided between those who avoid crowds of tourists like another invasion of the plague, and those who still like to attend the shows put on by the city, very few would question the relevance of celebrating the Festival of Lights. Today, if you come to Lyon around December 8, do not be surprised to see lit candles in most windows. As for Mary, the city did not forget her, as it can be read on the frontage of the Fourvière Chapel: “Thank you, Mary.”