The Fête des lumières (Festival of Lights) takes place on this date in Lyon in France annually. It expresses gratitude toward the Virgin Mary for saving the city from the plague. This unique Lyonnaise tradition dictates that every house place candles along the outsides of all the windows to produce a spectacular effect throughout the streets. The festival includes other activities based on light and usually lasts four days, with the peak of activity occurring on the 8th. The two main focal points of activity are typically the Basilica of Fourvière which is lit up in different colors, and the Place des Terreaux, which hosts a different light show each year.
The festival ultimately dates to 1643 when Lyon was struck by plague. On September 8th, 1643, the municipal councilors (échevins) promised to pay tribute to Mary if the town was spared. Ever since, a solemn procession makes its way to the Basilica of Fourvière on 8th December (the feast of the Immaculate Conception http://www.bookofdaystales.com/immaculate-conception/ ) to light candles and give offerings in the name of Mary. In part, the event also commemorates the day Lyon was consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
In 1852, it became a popular festival when a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected next to the Basilica, overlooking the city, Now a focal point of the festival, the statue was created by the renowned sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch and was sponsored by several notable Lyonnais Catholics. The inauguration of the statue was due to take place on September 8th, 1852, the day of celebration of the Nativity of the Virgin. However, the flooding of the Saône prevented the statue from being ready. The archbishop, with the agreement of a committee of lay people, therefore chose to move the date back to the 8th December.
By 1852 in Lyon, December 8th had already been a celebration for the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. Leading up to the inauguration, everything was in place for the festivities. The statue was lit up with flares, fireworks were readied for launching from the top of Fourvière Hill and marching bands were set to play in the streets. The prominent Catholics of the time suggested lighting up the façades of their homes as was traditionally done for major events such as royal processions and military victories.
However, on the morning of the big day, a storm struck Lyon. The master of ceremonies hastily decided to cancel everything and to push back the celebrations once more to the following Sunday. In the end the skies cleared and the people of Lyon, who had been eagerly anticipating the event, spontaneously lit up their windows, descended into the streets and lit flares to illuminate the new statue and the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Fourvière, later superseded by the Basilica. The people sang songs and cried “Vive Marie!” until late in the night. This celebration was then repeated from year to year.
Tradition now mandates that many families in Lyon keep, often along with their Christmas decorations, a collection of stained or clear glass in which candles are burnt on windowsills on 8th December. These stout, fluted candles can be found in shops towards the end of November. The city council puts on professionally-run performances. Lyon residents continue to participate as evidenced by numerous façades lit up in the traditional way and by the throngs of people wandering the streets on 8th December.
Lyon’s culinary heritage includes coq au vin, quenelles, gras double, salade lyonnaise (lettuce with bacon, croûtons and a poached egg), and the sausage-based rosette lyonnaise and andouillette. Popular local confections include marron glacé and coussin de Lyon. Cervelle de canut (literally, “silk worker’s brains”) is a cheese spread/dip made of a base of fromage blanc, seasoned with chopped herbs, shallots, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar. Any of these dishes would work as a celebration as long as you also light your house with candles on this date – I do. I am rather conventional and make Lyonnaise potatoes, a dish of sliced pan-fried potatoes and thinly sliced onions, sautéed in butter with parsley. The potatoes are often parboiled before sautéeing, but can be raw cooked in the pan. Here’s a convenient video (in English for you monoglots):