Picture Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate lit with purple columns one night, luminescent roses the next. Imagine parks with trees glowing in citrus colors. Visualize the bulbous domes of a cathedral colored in pastel flowers. Now open your eyes to dozens of flashing sculptures, radiant tents, and rainbow pillars. Since 2004, for ten days each October, the annual Berlin Festival of Lights has drawn up to a million people to the old German capital. “A mesmerizing city of light,” the London Times wrote, “and rather trippy sea of colour.” And the festival, which opened on Oct. 7, is on now through October 16.
Words can’t really describe the lights of Berlin in the coming week. Some pictures:
But Berlin’s is just the first of a season of light festivals now on the horizon.
For a few nights each autumn, the skies over the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar catch fire. The fire begins in open fields where rings of flame blaze beneath huge balloons. As tens of thousands cheer, hot air swells the glowing globes, some decorated with flags, faces, and scrollwork. Reaching their full height, some fifty feet above the ground, the balloons gently rise into the darkness, bearing gondolas gilded in candlelight. With torches and fireworks ringing the night, the scene recalls the Buddhist creation story where first beings — “self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious” — created a “World of Radiance.” But the Buddha did not foresee the lights on the ground, the glow of digital screens — smart phones and tablets held aloft, each framing a balloon as it soars.
Like the great orgies of light that heralded the early age of incandescence, festivals of light are flourishing around the world. The oldest, including Myanmar’s Tazaundaing Festival, have religious roots. For five days each October, India shimmers with candles, flares, and fireworks. Perhaps the only time of year when artificial light rivals sunrise over the Ganges, Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, makes ancient temples glow and lights flames by the millions. Light means more than dazzle in Diwali, as the Times of India suggested: “Regardless of the mythological explanation one prefers, what the festival of lights really stands for today is a reaffirmation of hope.” A similar renewal occurs as each winter looms and Jews celebrate Hanukkah, lighting menorahs to recall the miracle of a single night’s lamp oil lasting eight nights. But the newest festivals have replaced candles and lamps with lights fantastic.
Not to be left behind, Amsterdam now hosts its own annual festival of light. This year’s festival runs from December 1 to January 22. Tourists and locals will board canal boats, shivering as they glide past luminescent sculptures, floodlit sails and, in the year I visited, a glowing white bed floating in the city’s Red Light district. More dazzling yet more infrequent is Light Festival Ghent. Every three years — the next in 2018 — the old Belgian city becomes a fairy tale of ornate facades lit by lasers in splashy colors. Ghent’s Cathedral of Light uses 55,000 LEDs to turn a city block into a jeweled nave.
Lyon’s Fete de Lumières (Dec. 8-12) is Europe’s largest and oldest light fest, having evolved from holy candles to laser Fauvist colors. Hong Kong’s Symphony of Lights turns the city skyline into a disco with beams pulsing to the beat of truly obnoxious music. America is just catching up. Each November just before Thanksgiving, Chicago illuminates its Miracle Mile shopping district with a million lights. Providence, Rhode Island hosts a more primal light fest. Every other Saturday night in summer, crowds line the Providence River to watch WaterFire, a floating festival of small barges blazing with bonfires in iron braziers. And of course, every night brings a light festival to Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip.
The blaze of light festivals suggests that no matter how primal light remains, no matter how hi-tech it gets, light remains the great hurrah.