Every year, the city of Lyon in Eastern France holds a four day “Festival of Lights”. This year Lyon presented over 50 light installations and light shows using mediums such as buildings, squares, streets and parks. From the 7th-10th December, thousands of people descended on the popular city to see it with their own eyes (and of course take some insta-worthy photos). “C’est le feu” (C’est le feu: literally- it’s fire, actual meaning- it’s lit).
I can’t deny that the Fête des Lumières was one of the reasons I choose Lyon as the city where I wanted to complete my year abroad. So, to say I was excited when Friday night came around would be a bit of an understatement! Wrapped up tight, I made my way with flatmates and friends through the candle-lit streets towards the centre of town. With 70+ stalls worth of Christmas markets to the left, gigantic flowers towering above my eye-line and what appeared to be a couple of huge flying fish down the street on the right, deciding where to start was not easy. Fortunately, all the installations were fairly close to each other and interspersed (thank God!) by stalls selling “vin chaud” (mulled wine) for €2 a go. Excitement reached a maximum when, huddled in a café warming fingers on coffee cups, brains still filled with flashing lights, we glanced outside just as snowflakes began to fall. The Fête des Lumières made for a truly magical night, filled with sparkles and snowflakes and smiles.
There is more to the event, however, than the beautiful lights that first meets the eye. Nowadays, the theme of lights has become focused around exhibiting and celebrating the work of upcoming artists. Every year, on the 8th December however, there is an added element to the celebrations – the “lumignons” (a pretend word comprised of the words lumière which means light, and mignon, or cute). The lumignons are small candles in glass jars, and they are the link between today’s celebrations and the reason why the festival begin.
On the 8th September 1852, the lyonnaise population were preparing for the inauguration of a statue of the Virgin Mary constructed upon the “Forvière basilica”. However, on the same day, one of the two rivers of the city flooded- delaying the festivities by 3 months to the 8th December. On this postponed date, the weather once again posed a problem. The city was ravaged by a storm meaning that the event was cancelled. Miraculously however, as evening came, the weather fell calm again. The inhabitants of Lyon spontaneously descended into the streets making their way towards the statue to give thanks to Mary, using small candles to light their way. These candles are known today as “Les Lumignons du Coeur” (les Lumignons du Coeur: candles from the heart).
Now, every year, to remember the origins of the festival, a procession takes place on December 8th towards the Forvière Basilica. Lumignons are grasped in hands and placed in windows facing the street. An appeal is made to citizens of Lyon and to visitors to purchase these lumignons – the proceeds of which are donated to a different charity each year. This year, the chosen charity was “Association Laurette Fugain”, a 15 year old organisation that has been working towards encouraging people across France to become donors; be it for blood, plasma or organs.
The charity “Association Laurette Fugain” was founded in 2002. One of the most thought-provoking quotes on their website is “How can we imagine one day being a receiver if we have never been a donor”, an idea that underlines the fact that we only ever realise the importance of giving when it is too late. The association was founded as a tribute to Laurette Fugain who was herself a victim of leukaemia. After a battle of 10 months, she sadly lost her life and as a consequence, her mother set up this charity. As well as encouraging donors, the organisation also works to help advance medical research in the field of leukaemia, and to support sufferers and their families. On the website, Laurette’s mother explains that during the period of her hospitalisation, she found it unimaginable how little information and encouragement was given to the general public as to how to become a donor. She says that it is really hard to accept that there is a human-being dying in front of your eyes due to the fact that other people aren’t aware that they had the means to save her.
Through the donation process at the Fête des Lumières, in lighting a lumignon, light is shed both here and over there. In a society where people’s reluctance to give, stems from a belief that in doing so they will have less themselves, it struck me that Lyon has used a flame to symbolise charity and giving. Giving is just like the light from a flame. The more it is shared, the more it grows- improving everyone’s ability to see.