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Illuminating Traditions: The Role of Light in Global Festivals and Cultural Celebrations

Illuminating Traditions: The Role of Light in Global Festivals and Cultural Celebrations

Thursday 16 May 2024

Celebrated on the 16th May, the International Day of Light marks the anniversary of the first successful operation of the laser in 1960 by physicist and engineer Theodore Maiman. To celebrate, we are going to explore the use of light throughout various countries and cultures.

UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azouley, states: ‘Without light, our planet would be but a cold and barren place. Indeed, where there is light, there is often an abundance of life. Yet light represents even more for humanity. Light goes hand in hand with knowledge; it is a lens through which to see and understand the world.’

Light not only impacts what we see and how we feel, but it also plays a pivotal role throughout cultural celebrations around the world. From the tranquillity of Loi Krathong to the vibrant spectacles of Vivid Sydney, each festival illuminates the values, history, and artistic expressions of its people.


Loi Krathong and Yi Peng: Thailand, Burma, and Laos
In the enchanting atmospheres of Thailand, Burma, and Laos, Loi Krathong and Yi Peng stand as testimonies to the serene beauty and reflective nature of light. Loi Krathong involves the release of lotus-shaped rafts, typically made from banana leaves, adorned with candles and incense on water bodies as an offering to the water spirits. Yi Peng, celebrated concurrently in northern Thailand, sees the sky filled with thousands of floating lanterns, creating a mesmerising sea of light that symbolises letting go of misfortunes and making wishes for the coming year.

Diwali: Celebrated Widely Across South Asia
Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is one of the most beloved and widely celebrated festivals across South Asia. Homes and streets are decorated with oil lamps, candles, and rangolis - vibrant designs on the floor made from coloured powders or flowers. This festival celebrates the victory of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance, illuminating the spiritual richness of this tradition.


Chinese New Year Lantern Festival
Marking the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations, the Lantern Festival lights up the night with countless lanterns. Each lantern carries symbols of good fortune, hope, and wishes for the future, embodying the communal spirit and familial bonds that are at the heart of the festival.

Aurora Borealis: Cultural Phenomenon in Scandinavia
In the cold, dark winters of Scandinavia, the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) paints the sky with breathtaking colours. This natural light display is deeply embedded in the mythology and culture of the region, often seen as a bridge to the divine.


Northern Lights Festival: Canada
In Canada, the Northern Lights Festival celebrates the beauty of Aurora Borealis alongside Indigenous cultures, featuring music, art, and storytelling that highlight the rich heritage of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

Vivid Sydney: Australia
Vivid Sydney transforms the city into a dazzling outdoor gallery of light installations and projections. Artists from around the world gather to turn Sydney’s landmarks into canvases of light, celebrating innovation, creativity, and the vibrant energy of the city.

Lyon Festival of Lights: France
Originally a tribute to Mary, mother of Jesus, during a plague in 1643, Lyon’s Festival of Lights has evolved into a major urban event. Every December, buildings, streets, and parks are lit up with installations that blend traditional and contemporary art forms.


Fireworks on New Year’s Eve: Global Celebration
Around the world, fireworks on New Year’s Eve are a global testament to the joy and hope that light brings with each new year. Bursting through the darkness, these displays of light are a powerful symbol of renewal and celebration.

Hanukkah: The Jewish Festival of Lights
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, where the Jews witnessed a miracle— a small amount of oil, enough for just one day, burned for eight nights. This festival is celebrated by lighting the menorah, each night adding one more light until all are ablaze.


Gardens by the Bay: Singapore
Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay light show is an awe-inspiring display of what modern technology can do with light. The futuristic garden features super-tree structures festooned with lights that dazzle against the cityscape, reflecting the city-state’s forward-thinking spirit.

Each of these celebrations tells a unique story through light, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. They remind us of our shared human experience and the universal symbolism of light as hope, renewal, and connection. As we explore these illuminating traditions, we not only witness the beauty of light but also feel its power to unite us across continents and cultures.


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