Festival of Lights, French Style

A Change of Perspective

Rightly or wrongly, long ago, I acquired a reputation as a bit of an old cynic and even something of a curmudgeon, but one of the things I’ve noticed since Marianne and I moved to Puivert a year ago, is the spirituality of the people here. Before that, I actually didn’t have the faintest concept of spirituality or what it entailed and even now, I struggle to put it into words. It is however no longer a mystery to me. I get it. It’s a feeling, a state of mind, a relationship with life beyond the purely rational and observable.


One of the things that characterise Puivertains is that we tend not to be focused on the beacons of wealth and consumerism. That isn’t to suggest we have all embraced some sort of asceticism or that I am contemplating spending a year sitting atop a pillar, seeking enlightenment, in the fashion of Simeon Stylites; but the pace of life is slower, and people take more time to consider and appreciate their surroundings. Walking and cycling are popular pastimes and there’s plenty of time stop to admire the wildlife or simply take in the breathtaking scenery. And folk really do care about the environment, both locally and globally, and issues such as poverty and inequality.



This spiritual outlook is perhaps not surprising, given that the region was the birthplace of Catharism – an offshoot of Christianity – in the 11th century. The Cathars were a gentle sect who believed in a sort of dual version of God, recognising good and evil aspects. They eschewed the usual trappings of the Church and adopted a simple, unadorned style of worship, concentrating principally on the spiritual and mystic. Naturally, Rome found all this rather disconcerting and somewhat overreacted, embarking on a crusade of systematic extermination concluding, in 1244, with the siege of Montségur castle, at the end of which, 200 Cathars were burned on a huge pyre at the base of the mountain on which it is perched. The scene of this bloody episode is 30 minutes’ drive from Puivert, and well worth a visit. Author, Kate Mosse, based her Languedoc trilogy on the crusade and she mentions many local landmarks and features in her novels.


Phil le Planeur

A perfectly reasonable question at this point would be, “But what does all this have to do with the solstice and sausage rolls?” however before elucidating further, I need to mention Phil the Glider Man. “Phil le Planeur”, to give him his sobriquet, is a long-term resident of Puivert. Brought up in St Albans, he spent many years in engineering before retiring here. Distinguishable by his shock of thick, white hair, Phil is something of a luminary of the Puivert Gliding Club (“Les Planeurs de Puivert en Quercorb”) and also spends much of his time volunteering with the local youth and cultural organisation, the MJC. He’s great with cables and floodlights. He’s also something of a master baker. His prowess is legendary: his cakes are light and fluffy; his tarts are tempting, and his buns must be seen to be believed. But his crème de la crème, his pièce de résistance, his chef d’œuvre, is… sausage rolls! Delicious, golden puff pastry and a delicately-seasoned filling of perfect consistency, combine to make a parcel of traditional British flavour and textures, fit to grace any occasion, including Puivert’s annual Fête de la Lumière.


Lights and Fire

Ancient civilisations managed to devise methods of accurately predicting the seasons and it became the norm to celebrate the equinoxes and the solstices. The winter solstice developed particular significance, representing as it does, the transition towards summer, with nights becoming shorter and daylight getting longer. It ushers in a new period of hope and optimism, and it’s no coincidence that every major religion has a celebration at around that time, many of which are based on lights and fire.


Fête de la Lumière

It is in keeping with the spiritual nature of Puivert that some bright spark suggested, a few years ago, celebrating the winter solstice with a Fête de la Lumière – a “Festival of Light” – and it has now become one of the highlights of the calendar. This year it’s on 21st December. A couple of hundred or more adults and children gather in the centre of the village soon after nightfall and process the 600m or so to the lake, carrying lanterns and torches, accompanied by musicians, a drum troupe and the singing of traditional songs. The path is lined with some 300 small lamps, lit by hand. Villagers and guests alike gather by the lake, in front of a huge bonfire, with a backdrop of the shadowy outline of Puivert castle, silhouetted against the night sky, for a brief ceremony and a “spectacle”, involving lights, fire and live traditional music (and possibly, boats!). In addition, a small “buvette” is set up, serving soup, vin chaud, soft drinks, cakes and of course, Phil le Planeur’s sausage rolls! They were such a hit last year that, this time, he has agreed to make double and a vegetarian option. A splendid evening is guaranteed!


Festivities end by around 8.30 pm and as the embers of the bonfire die down, many will wend their way back into the village for a drink and a bite to eat at Chez Marius or the Brasserie du Quercorb; and those with excited children will try to calm them down enough to get them to bed! It’s a great way to ignite the Christmas festivities and get everyone properly in the mood for the holiday season. More than that, it is another shining example of the events that happen periodically in Puivert that reaffirm the spirit of friendship and community that exists here.


Thanks for reading, and best wishes to all for the festive period. Joyeux Noël, and a very happy New Year from Marianne and me and of course, all of the gentle folk of Puivert.


À bientôt,




© Alan R Price, 2019

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  1. Glad to see life continues to be great in your new French home, happy Xmas to all your family

  2. Love the winter solstice (sans sausage rolls) because it heralds the shortest day. And festival of light is a genius idea when it’s dark and gloomy outside. I was thinking of celebrating Diwali this year!

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