Every year, the city of Lyon in southeastern France celebrates the “Festival of Lights” on Dec. 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
With numerous events, including a torchlight procession attended by thousands, the local Catholic Church does its utmost to remind people of the religious significance of this tradition, which has honored the Virgin Mary since 1852 — even before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed.
For four days, from Dec. 7–10, millions of tourists from all over the world come to Lyon to admire its artistic light installations.
In the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, on a hill overlooking the city, these four days are a highlight of the year. It is in this place — which has been linked to the devotion to the Mother of God since the Middle Ages when residents would come to pray during plagues and wars — that the “Festival of Lights” was born.
“The city of Lyon has turned it into a festival of lights, but its origins lie in the Lyonnais’ attachment to Mary and a time when they spontaneously put lights in their windows in her honor,” Marine Guillemain, head of communications at the Fourvière Foundation, which is in charge of the Fourvière shrine, explained to CNA.
An act of devotion to Mary
In 1852, a gilded bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, placed at the top of the Fourvière chapel, was due to be unveiled on Sept. 8, the feast of the Virgin’s birth. Due to a flood in the founder’s workshop, the ceremony was delayed until Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was not yet a dogma at the time.
When the date arrived, a torrential downpour fell on the city, threatening the grand celebration the people of Lyon had planned. However, as night fell, the rain stopped and, according to local chronicles, all the city’s inhabitants began to light up their windows.
“Suddenly, lines of fire appeared at a few unknown windows... The city was ablaze in an instant. Soon, not a single dark window was left in the vast expanse of quays, streets, unknown passages, and invisible courtyards. A few Bengal fires were lit on the roofs of the Fourvière chapel, the statue of the Virgin appeared, and the big bell of St. John, that eloquent interpreter of public joy, was ringing in the air,” the diocesan website recounts.
The story continues: “At 8 o’clock, the whole population was in the street, moving about, peaceful, joyful. … People shook hands without knowing each other, sang hymns, applauded, shouted: ‘Vive Marie!’ (‘Long live Mary’). Foreigners couldn’t believe their surprise, and the Lyonnais, as full as they were of this unexpected celebration, wondered how, in an instant, a population of 300,000 souls could have been seized by the same thought.”
This unplanned event became a tradition and was affirmed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX’s proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus.
To this day, the people of Lyon continue to put candles on their windowsills every year, as 13-year-old Philomène, the eldest of four siblings, attests: “For me, Dec. 8 is like the real start of Advent. We put candles in our windows, we bear witness that we’re Christians. It’s a tribute to Mary, and putting a candle in the window can be a testimony to our neighbors.”
The Lyon Diocese is heavily involved in the celebrations. Seminarians from the diocese are invited to become “Missionaries of the 8th.”
“They are present on the Fourvière esplanade under a tent. They offer visitors a chance to meet them and talk about what motivates them,” Guillemain explained.
Likewise, religious communities and numerous volunteers come to meet the public, bearing witness to the history of the city’s Marian devotion.
“We like to remind people of the historical significance of the festival. There are a lot of initiatives at the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière — it’s very lively; we can find choirs, prayer vigils, reading times.”
Beginning Dec. 1, the giant illuminated letters “Merci Marie” (“Thank you, Mary”) are lit up on Fourvière Hill. This symbol, visible from afar, remains lit at night throughout the month.
Then on Dec. 8, in the crypt of the basilica, which houses statues of Mary from all over the world — Brazil, China, Philippines, Lebanon, Mexico, Poland, India, Algeria, Portugal — communities from each of these countries come to pray around their “Lady,” bringing flowers and often in traditional dress.
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Many also come to admire the famous “crèche des Lyonnais” (Nativity scene of the inhabitants of Lyon), which gets bigger every year. In addition to the classic figures, the scene includes great Christians from Lyon such as St. Blandine, St. Pothin, St. Iréné, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, Pauline Jaricot, Jeanne Garnier, and others.
Young people also play a special role on Dec. 8. They take part in a large procession up the hill, culminating in a Mass at 8 p.m.
“Last year there were almost 2,000 of them, and the basilica and crypts were packed,” Guillemain said. The day’s festivities conclude with a “Mass for the people of Lyon” at 10 p.m.
Everyone needs hope
There are two new initiatives this year: Given the conflicts ravaging the world, notably in the Holy Land and in Ukraine, a “luminous dove of peace” will be formed from lit candles on the esplanade.
“Anyone who wants to can make a gesture for peace by buying a candle to build this dove,” Guillemain explained.
Finally, everyone in Lyon can send their prayer intentions by e-mail or SMS to be projected onto the basilica’s façade.
“With all the tourists who come to the basilica for the Festival of Lights, we see a steady stream of people. Many come to pray, to light a candle; priests are there to welcome them; it’s an opportunity to meet and share the faith that drives us,” Guillemain said. “There’s a search for meaning. Especially in these times of war and uncertainty, they feel at peace when they come here. Whether you’re a believer or not, everyone needs hope, and Fourvière provides that.”
St. Frances dreamed of becoming a nun, but in obedience to her parents' wishes and the advice of her confessor, she agreed to marry. Her life of charity and service is a model for wives and mothers to this day.