The sun puts on a light show that circles the globe daily. For those who stop to admire, sunrise and sunset are rarely disappointing. Yet in recent years, as if it were possible to upstage the sun, light shows, light festivals, and light extravaganzas have spread worldwide.
Some of the festivals, such as Iran’s Nowruz and the Hindu Diwali (above), have ancient religious roots. Others are the offspring of those laser “light shows” that lit rock concerts in the 1970s. Regardless of their origin, festivals of light have become annual events in major cities, including Berlin, Hong Kong, Ghent, Lyon, Chicago…
Here’s a guide for where to go and what to see:
THE BERLIN FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS (October)
Picture the 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 stroll along streets lined with flashing sculptures, radiant tents, and rainbow pillars. Since 2004, the annual Berlin Festival of Lights has drawn millions to the old German capital for ten days in October. Reviewing a recent festival, the London Times described “a mesmerizing city of light. . . and rather trippy sea of colour.”
HONG KONG (ongoing)
Light puts on a show every night in Hong Kong during the “Symphony of Lights,” a 40-minute fest that lights the skyline. The “Symphony of Lights,” projected to the pulsing beat of disco, has earned the Guinness Book of World Records title as the world’s largest permanent sound and light show.
Europe’s oldest light festival began with bad weather. In the fall of 1852, celebrations of a new statue of the Virgin Mary were twice postponed, once by flood and once by storm. On December 8, disappointed by the second delay, residents lit their windows with candles. Ever since, early-December has brought another Fete de Lumières to France’s second largest city. Residents still use candles but the city itself is laser-lit. Over four spectacular nights, Europe’s top light sculptors unveil dozens of installations that turn light into holographic tunnels, domes, flowers, and other shifting shapes. Book early. The Fete de Lumières now draws up to a million people.
DIWALI - THE HINDU FESTIVAL OF LIGHT (late autumn)
Each autumn, throughout India and other places where Hindus gather, the festival known as Diwali proves that you don’t need lasers to put on a light show. Diwali dates to ancient Hindu scripture, celebrating Lord Rama’s return from exile. Across India, and at various points in Southeast Asia, whole cities are lit by candles and torches. Fireworks abound. Candle-lit parades, elaborate candelabras and humble diyas (lamps) make Diwali the most natural and moving of all light festivals. “Regardless of the mythological explanation one prefers,” the Times of India wrote, “what the festival of lights really stands for today is a reaffirmation of hope.” While Hindus celebrate Diwali, Jains and Buddhists also hold their own festivals of light, making Southeast Asia a light show of many faiths.
Several Japanese cities burst with light throughout the winter. Kyoto has two light festivals. Osaka hosts a Renaissance of Light each December, while Sapporo now floodlight its annual Snow Festival each February, lighting up snow sculptures in pastel colors. And in Nabana no Sato, this light tunnel is just one of many illuminated installations that beckon visitors from November through February.
LIGHT FESTIVAL GHENT (Every third January)
You have to wait to attend Light Festival Ghent, which is held every third January in the old Belgian city. But in 2015, more than 600,000 people found the festival worth the wait. Not just flashing lasers or tunnels, Ghent’s festival plays with light, turning it into walk-through cathedrals, sketching alternate skylines, and making buildings appear to crumble and rise again. Nearly 50 installations by Europe’s leading light designers turned old buildings into screens, stages, and props. Next festival — 2018.
NOWRUZ (spring equinox)
Dating to the fire-lit ceremonies of Zoroastrianism, Nowruz illuminates Iran on the first day of spring. Hailing the triumph of light over darkness, celebrants carry torches, leap over bonfires, and gather families around candlelit shrines. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Nowruz has been extended throughout Central Asia and is now celebrated from Turkey to India.
WATER FIRE - PROVIDENCE, R.I. (summer Saturday nights)
Every other Saturday evening in summer, sunset draws crowds to the Providence River. There, while music blares, Water Fire comes to life. Huge braziers stocked with firewood are lit into blazing torches that, for the next few hours, are floated down river. The primal festival of light also lights up Christmas and other special occasions.
TAZAUNDAING - MYANMAR (November)
For a few nights each November, 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 decorated with flags, faces, and scrollwork. Reaching their full height, some fifty feet above the ground, the balloons gently rise into the darkness. With torches and fireworks ringing the night, the Tazaundaing Festival recalls the Buddhist creation story where first beings — “self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious” — created a “World of Radiance.”
TIMES SQUARE AND THE VEGAS STRIP (every night)
The U.S. has been slow to add annual light festivals to its calendar. Chicago now has a Thanksgiving lighting of its Miracle Mile shopping district. Louisiana hosts an annual Holiday Trail of Lights in several linked cities. But of course, every night brings a light festival to America’s two shrines of electric light — Times Square in Manhattan and the Las Vegas Strip.