The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Lyon's Christmas season begins not the day after Thanksgiving but on December 8 with the Fete des Lumieres (Festival of Lights, not to be confused with that other one with dreidels and menorahs and whatnot).

Back when the cathedral Notre Dame de Fourviere was completed, a dedication ceremony was planned for December 8, with the Pope in attendance to smash a bottle of champagne on the altar (or something like that). A big storm blew in, causing cancellation of the festivities, but the people of Lyon, pumped to honor the Virgin Mary, who they credited with sparing Lyon the ravages Paris endured during the Franco-Prussian War--maybe they should have built a monument to Otto von Bismarck, but whatever-- spontaneously placed lit candles in their windows throughout the citmisery visited upon Paris during they. The storm wondrously abated, and the consecration went on as planned.

Since then, December 8 has been commemorated with the display of small candles in colored glass holders in Lyonnaise windows. In the 1990s, the city, seeing a nice tourism opportunity, decided to make a big deal out of it, and encouraged elaborate and creative light displays of the city's landmarks. The plan worked better than the city fathers could have dreamed, and now the Fete spreads over an entire weekend to accomodate the estimate three million visitors who swarm the Presqu'Ile to watch the shifting lights and drink vin chaud.

It gets pretty festive, I must say. The streets, which are closed to vehicles, are jammed with people, so much so that in the squares the cafe doors won't open outward. Restaurants set up stands to sell vin chaud (warm, spiced wine), crepes, and rosted chestnuts. This rainy night when I took these pictures didn't dampen spirits too much, thanks to the vin chaud.

And the light displays: I grew up in North Carolina, where"Christmas light displays" conjures images of plastic Santa Clauses, bass boats outlined in colored lights, and Nativity scenes overseen by 9-foot inflatable snowmen, not to mention huge traffic jams of people trying to get to McAdenville, NC, the mecca for those who get a bump in Christmas spirit from driving slowly through neighborhoods full of over-the-top displays and miles of lights.

Being French, however, the Lyonnais take this endeavor very seriously as a means of artistic expression. The results are sometimes remarkably beautiful and sometimes just plain Eurostrange [see jellyfish pic]. Think of the opening ceremony of any Winter Olympic games held in Europe and you'll get an idea of the aesthetic. "The dragonflies and bees projected on the facades represent an urban meadow, accentuated by red "flowers" of revolving lights that place the energy of the city within the relaxing context of the French countryside. I'm Bob Costas, and we'll be right back with the Parade of Nations, as the Winter Olympics continues on NBC."

Some of these pictures show the animated CGI show projected on the facade of the gothic Eglise St-Nizier, but don't really do justice to the way the animated gargoyles "climbed" the towers. (There's some video on the official site, here; click "video"). Pretty neat stuff, even for a jaded old hipster like myself.

If you want to see more pictures, a Flickr photo search will give you hundreds, most better than mine as they were not taken one-handed from under an umbrella while a baby in a sling chewed the photographer's shirt buttons.


Post a Comment

<< Home