Catholics do not often celebrate like this.

A packed crowd gathers outside the Cathédrale Saint-Jean, in the French city of Lyon, on a frosty December night to watch the 19th-century facade undergo transfor­ma­tions worthy of a 1960s acid trip; thousands cheer as the cathedral bursts into a rainbow of colours that shatters before the eyes. Light sabres shine out of the Gothic building, a thousand trees erupt through the windows and fall to a bonfire below, neon grid lines zap around the portico and otherworldly shapes bloom from the balconies. An ornate gold creeper climbs the stone exterior, encompassing everything from the floor to the church clock, while in a dazzling, uplift­ing finale, the entire building collapses, only to be reborn better and brighter than ever.

Standing at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône rivers, Lyon is an extraordinarily pretty city to walk around, even when its Roman ruins (from when the city was the capital of Gaul) and the medieval, renais­sance and neoclassical buildings that line the river banks are lit by no more than street lamps. But the Gothic churches and begui­ling traboules, the city’s ancient narrow passageways, become ethereal in their beauty when illuminated by the world’s most talented light artists.

The annual Fête des Lumières – a series of captivating nighttime light shows that people travel from around the globe to marvel at – may sound like an ode to modern technology, but in fact it began in 1852, when the staunchly Catholic populace was looking for a way to celebrate the arrival of a golden statue of the Virgin Mary on Fourvière, the hill that looms over Lyon.

She was, however, late to her own party. Designed by Lyonnais sculptor Joseph-Hugues Fabisch, the statue was due to be unveiled in September, but after a damp summer and a wetter autumn, the River Saône had flooded Fabisch’s workshop, and proceedings were delayed.

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The event was rearranged for December 8 but on the evening before, Lyon was once again engulfed by a storm and the festivities were cancel­led indefinitely. And prematurely, as it turns out, as the morning of December 8 dawned bright and sunny.

Frustrated, the denizens of Lyon lit candles after sunset and placed them on their windowsills before descending into the streets for an impromptu party. The priests were quick to get in on the act, lighting up the Fourvière chapel, and a festival was born.

Although the Virgin Mary would probably not approve of its modern-day incar­nation, wherein doves burst out of the Eglise Saint Nizier and 30-metre-high Disney cartoon characters waltz around the facade of the Place Bellecour, since its revival, in 1999, the Festival of Lights has blossomed into one of Lyon’s most anticipated long weekends (it runs over four nights). And it is as wacky as it is wonderful.

As the images of French philosophers stroll across the Haussmanian facades along the Saône, revellers wander around more solid artworks: a cement-mixer truck reimagined as a disco-ball, out of which blares 70s music; a propeller plane bathed in a Swinging Sixties floral print. And in a nod to the upcoming Lumieres Hong Kong (see sidebar), La Carpe Koi, a 12-metre-long fish-dragon made of feathers, glitter and hundreds of glowing lights, undulates on the spot at the end of Rue de la République.

Ultimately the Festival of Lights is a celebration of Lyon itself. Pale blue foot­ballers made of lights kick goals towards World Cup victory; the Place Bellecour Ferris wheel is dotted with images of Lyonnais delicacies; Madame Bovary shines out of a fourth-floor window and beating hearts proclaim the word “Amour” as Celine Dion (a local favourite) belts out a hit in French.

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Perfectly drawn guidebooks advise visitors where to be and when, and the compact size of the city means it’s possible to see the 40 main light shows on foot over the course of two evenings, starting at 8pm and ending by midnight. And while gloves, hats and scarves are necessary, the best way to fight off the bone-chilling December cold is with a vin chaud, spicy local sausages or hot chocolate, bought from the stalls that appear to stand on every corner.

The most moving show takes place in the Roman amphitheatre, which is illuminated only in white, presenting a powerful contrast to the cheery, sometimes gaudy neon that is ubiquitous elsewhere.

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The installation is divided into two parts: on one side 13,000 flickering tea candles light up the ancient stairs; on the other, a delicate love story – the image of two people out at sea depicted in lights, which also mimic the movement of water and waves – plays out against the ancient walls. The softly uplifting music combined with the hopeful tale is made all the more moving by the fact that this festival is coming at the end of a particularly difficult 12 months for France, during which the country suffered more attacks than in any period since the second world war.

Along with its increasingly renowned restaurant scene, the Festival of Lights is helping Lyon to step out of the shadow of Paris. France may be the most visited country on Earth, but tourists tend to follow a limited itinerary: the capital and its many wonders, wine country and the idyllic towns and beaches of the south.

Moving at some moments, boisterously entertaining at others, the Fête des Lumières provides a unique experience that, locals say, becomes progressively more specta­cular with each incarnation, drawing denser crowds, bigger budgets and ever more-talented artists.

Hong Kong is in for a treat.

Melissa Twigg’s visit to Lyon was sponsored by ONLYLYON

Lumieres Hong Kong festival - let there be light

The Lumieres Hong Kong festival will make its debut next month, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the handover.

In partnership with the Fête des Lumières de Lyon, the free event will feature light instal­lations, video projections, art and dining on November 23, 24 and 25. Fifteen landmark sites, such as 1881 Heritage, City Hall, Duddell Street and the Man Mo Temple, will become the canvas on which local and international light artists – including Teddy Lo, Kingsley Ng Siu-king, Yves Moreaux and Christophe Mayer – will showcase their visions.