Looking Back at the Origin of City of Lights

As the annual City of Lights Parade and Celebration approaches on Saturday, November 25th, I spent an afternoon at the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History and looked through Father Armand "Spike" Morissette’s collection of documents from the early days of the City of Lights Parade. What began as a project and symbol of “Faith in Lowell” has now become an honored tradition for the city’s community and the beginning of holiday season festivities.  Below are some of the events’ traditions that began in the 1950s and have evolved into today’s celebration.


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Lighting the City

The City of Lights organizers wanted to demonstrate the vibrancy and joy of the holiday spirit and decided there was no better way to do so than to light up the city with lights.  Lighting of public buildings, monuments, stores and homes was encouraged.  The lights would not only fill the streets with local residents enjoying the brilliant display, but also bring people from neighboring communities to experience the beauty of a city glowing in light.   After a hiatus and a decline in the number of lighting displays, the City of Lights theme was resurrected in the late 1980s/early 1990s through a partnership between the city and private businesses.  Some 50,000 new lights and unique decorations were installed.  A holiday stroll grew into a holiday parade.  Nowadays, the tradition continues with an estimated 60,000 lights that bring the holidays to life and serve as the official start of the holiday season for many.  The City of Lights program from the 1952-1953 season began this honored tradition, one that is as popular as ever six decades later.


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Music and Poetry

With holiday singalongs, caroling, concerts, movies and more fun entertainment in the City of Lights Parade this year, it’s no secret that the community loves to be entertained.  The origin of the City of Lights shows that this tradition goes back to the 1950s when music and poetry defined the entertainment of the Parade at the time. Songs like “Lights On In Lowell Town” written about the City of Lights by Paul Bordeleau and Henry Fournier were the embodiment of bringing the holidays alive in the community. Poems were the other big form of entertainment, with a poem called “Christmas Lights” being printed on the back of the City of Lights 1952-53 program book.  Other poems were included in the actual event, with local poets being chosen to have their poem become the “Official City of Lights Poem” every year.


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Contests and Activities

Nowadays, the Parade includes a multitude of activities such as the Festival of Wreaths, Photos with Santa, Strolling Carolers through Downtown and more. In the 1950s, many of the activities revolved around garnering participation for the City of Lights project. Contests helped do this, especially when it came to decorating. Home decoration contests allowed the community to get involved in the celebration and to show how festive they were in decorating their home. These contests had first, second and third place plaques that were awarded. Today, downtown stores compete in a window decorating contest and eateries compete in the Hot Chocolate Competition.  It’s delightful to see how the activities have grown through the years and how the spirit of the early City of Lights program continues today and displays Lowell’s love for holiday festivities.