Updated: Nov 15, 2021
✦ Remember there's always light at the end of the tunnel
Celebrating the Festival of Lights all around the world
Make no bones about it, it’s been a desperately dark and glum year for all of us. COVID-19 has dominated everything and everyone, affecting the way we live and impacting us all in ways we arguably do not even fully comprehend yet.
However, we are nearing the time of year where celebrations abound and we all have room for cheer. This year more than ever before it seems to be more than mere coincidence that the range of festivals taking place globally at this time of the year have one thing in common: celebrating light. Light denotes goodness, positivity, hope and rebirth and it therefore seems apt that after all the doom and gloom of the last year, we can convene and celebrate light as a reminder of brighter days ahead.
But what of these festivals of light are celebrated in all four corners of our world? Here we take a deeper dive into a selection and find out more as to what makes them such special occasions.
Light and Christmas go hand in hand. When we think of the festive period, we immediately conjure up visions of Christmas trees adorned in lights, of houses decked out in impressive light configurations and dazzling light shows in our cities and town squares where shops carry spectacular displays.
Christmas trees were originally brought into houses by Christians in Germany and decorated with candles to symbolise and celebrate Jesus Christ being the light of the world. The custom has grown over the years, with increasingly elaborate electric lighting replacing candles, and is now common in countries all over the globe.
In certain neighbourhoods in certain countries things can get rather competitive with houses striving to out-do one another in their quest to have the best decorated house on the street, something that can often result in outrageous set pieces witnessed!
One town in Australia renowned for its Christmas lighting displays is South Australia’s Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills. The impressive displays draw crowds from all around as people journey to witness first hand the sterling work the residents have undertaken.
Cities all around the world have become famous for their Christmas light displays and related celebrations but arguably none quite has the iconic romance of New York. The lighting of the Christmas tree lights at Rockefeller Center in New York City is regarded as signifying the start of the festive holidays for New Yorkers and is very much an iconic event. The 77-foot-tall Norway spruce at Rockefeller Center is wrapped with a whopping 30,000 multi-coloured LED lights strung on five miles of wire decorated with some 45,000 lights and is truly a sight to behold! Coupled with the dazzling lighting throughout Manhattan’s long avenues and streets and the world-famous window displays in the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s make Christmas in New York a truly magical experience.
If in New York, you can also celebrate Hanukkah in front of the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street which boasts the world’s largest menorah: a 32-foot-high, two-ton, gold-colored steel structure. Hanukkah is a Jewish festival commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem that starts in late November or early December and lasts for eight days and nights. Dating back over 2,000 years, it is also referred to as the Festival of Lights. Families light one candle on the first day of the festival after sundown, two on the second day (and so on) during the eight day period, while reciting prayers and singing songs.
Hopping over the border into Canada, there is also a festival of lights celebration that coincides with Christmas at Niagara Falls. Known as the Winter Festival of Lights, it runs from mid-November until the end of December and, as the country’s largest lights festival, attracts over a million visitors a year. Leveraging the awe-inspiring falls, the festival adds strobe lighting, projected images and dramatic music to illuminate a 5km area which leaves visitors marvelling.
‘Canopy of light and colour’
London is another city that truly comes alive with light during the festive period. All the famous landmarks such as Buckingham Palace, the House of Commons and Big Ben and the London Eye are adorned with spectacular lights that really enhance the festive spirit. Kew Gardens is another popular destination where 60,000 lights sparkle in a mile-long trail, and a light installation of 1,700 swaying flowers and a roaring fire garden are joined by singing Christmas trees! The Gardens’ iconic Palm House and pond are lit by a coloured light show while festive songs play in the background.
Further afield in the UK the likes of Blenheim Palace really get into the festive spirit with an expansive light show within its grounds – they even have a workshop in the lake’s boathouse where Santa Claus and his elves have set up!
The Festival of Light and Sound at the Eden Project in the country’s south-western region of Cornwall provides a spectacular Christmas experience as lasers create a canopy of light and colour, music plays and all manner of festive activities are available for the family to enjoy.
Triumph of light over dark
Unrelated to the festive season but equally renowned for its celebration of light is Diwali or Deepavali.
The difference between Diwali and Deepavali is that Diwali is the five-day festival celebrated in mostly the north Indian states, whereas Deepavali is the four-day festival celebrated mostly in the south Indian states. In this article, we will refer this festival as Diwali.
The Diwali five-day festival, known as the Festival of Lights, honours Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and is regarded as a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. The exact dates of the festival change each year and are determined by the position of the moon, but it typically falls between October and November (this year it was November 4). It is celebrated by over one billion Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists all around the world although the festival is especially popular in places such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan mainly due to it originating in the Indian subcontinent and it being mentioned in early Sanskrit texts; in India, it is the biggest and most important holiday of the year.
Diwali is a time for feasts, prayers and fireworks, the social highpoint for many as parties are thrown, and friends and family convene to celebrate and exchange gifts. People illuminate oil lamps or candles which symbolises the triumph of light over dark, good over evil, and it is often regarded as a fresh start or the beginning of a new year for many. Today, many cities indulge in high-tech pyrotechnic light displays to celebrate and truly mark the occasion with a bang.
This year, of course, celebrations were slightly muted as the ongoing threat of coronavirus still looms, particularly in India which has been ravaged with cases and fatalities and still continues to struggle. The central government urged crowds not to gather and celebrate in fear of the virus spreading and several states ordered the complete or partial ban on the sale and use of firecrackers.
However, emphasising the Diwali’s reach and popularity, the likes of London’s Canary Wharf Jubilee Park witnessed a glowing floral display where multicoloured flowers and radiant lotus designs illuminated the water, using inspiration from the patterns and light of traditional Indian decorations. Likewise, New York City embraced the occasion as the World Trade Center was lit up with a digital mural in celebration of the holiday for the first time along with a live-streamed fireworks show on the Hudson River.
Make a wish...
Also in November, we have the world renowned Chiang Mai Lantern Festival in Thailand. Revellers make wishes for good fortune as they launch paper lanterns known as khom loi into the sky to symbolise the release of negativity and bad luck during the previous year. Buddhists believe that if you make a wish while releasing the lantern, it will come true. The sight of thousands of lit lanterns simultaneously gracing the night sky is a mesmerising experience.
Other Festivals of Light of note around the world include the annual Berlin Festival of Light which takes place in September through October and sees many of the citiy’s famous buildings and landmarks doused in colour through the use of illuminations, luministic projections and 3D mapping.
In Kobe, Japan a light festival is held every December to commemorate the devastating Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995 which left 6,000 people dead. Over 200,000 individually hand painted lights are lit each year with electricity generated from biomass in order to stay environmentally friendly. The lights are kept up for about two weeks and turned on for a few hours each evening. Major streets in the vicinity are closed to traffic during these hours to allow pedestrians to fill the streets and enjoy the lights and it is estimated between 3-5 million attend each year.
The town of New Plymouth in New Zealand has been hosting its own annual celebration known as the Taranaki Festival of Lights since 1993. Running from December to early February in Pukepura Park, it has daytime and night time programmes and events for people of all ages, with thousands of colourful light installations illuminating the park’s paths while simultaneously showcasing its splendid waterfalls, lakes and trees.
Last but not least we have Vivid Sydney which elaborates from merely a festival of light to incorporate performances by local and international musicians, and an ideas exchange forum featuring public talks and debates with leading creative thinkers.
Taking place annually over the course of three weeks in May and June, the centrepiece is the light sculptures, multimedia interactive work and building projections that transform various buildings and landmarks in and around the central business district into an outdoor night time canvas of art. Spectacular light shows adorn the likes of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House, Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House and selected areas of the Rocks, Circular Quay and Royal Botanic Gardens. The event has become an iconic occasion attracting over 2.5 million visitors in 2019 although the 2020 and 2021 editions were sadly postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, as we can see, despite a terrible past year and-a-half there are so many illuminating events out there that can provide so much reason for cheer and optimism.
Whether you are lucky enough to be in a location where you can enjoy first hand the splendours of a Festival of Lights or not, remember there is always light at the end of the tunnel.
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