Visit a Festival of Light
Located in Germany, Franconian Switzerland got its name because of its landscape – rocky mountains and green valleys – which many found reminiscent of Switzerland. The winter holiday season is a very special time of year in this beautiful region of Germany. The regular street lights get turned off, church bells ring, and solemn, candle-lit processions pass through the small towns flanked by rocky slopes. Every year, the people here celebrate Epiphany (or Three Kings Day) by lighting hundreds of candles, wood fires, and flares atop the steep slopes surrounding the towns, putting the whole area aglow. It’s called the “Festival of Light” or “Lichterprozession” in German.
What is this tradition all about? And how can you experience it for yourself? Find out everything you need to know right here.
Epiphany: a centuries-old tradition
The festival of light in Franconian Switzerland is an annual highlight that welcomes in the New Year. One important part of the tradition is perpetual adoration. This is a Catholic prayer custom first established by Pope Clement VIII in 1592. Back then, a day of prayer was held in a different chapel of the diocese on each day of the church calendar.
Although this custom slowly faded away, the Archbishop of Bamberg decreed in 1759 that the prayer days should be revived in his diocese. In Franconian Switzerland, the custom of perpetual adoration actually still continues on set days based on the church calendar and is even experiencing resurgence due to the popular festival of light that concludes the prayer. Every year, a large crowd of visitors is drawn to the towns of Franconian Switzerland to admire the sea of lights. Despite the popularity of the lights, the towns still attempt to avoid commercialization and work to maintain the holy intention of the tradition.
What is a Festival of Light?
The perpetual adoration prayer concludes with a procession of sometimes thousands of people making their way through the towns of Franconian Switzerland after dark. During the walk, people light candles and even fires along the streets, in the fields, and along the steep rocky slopes, creating an electrifying atmosphere. The parade always starts at the church where the prayers are performed and is usually accompanied by brass bands, church bells, and singing. After the parade ends, the crowd usually moves into the inns of the villages, where the night continues on in celebration.
Time and Place of Parades
The festival of lights is an essential tradition that marks the end of perpetual adoration And if you really wanted to experience more than one parade, you’re in luck because they don’t all happen on the same day. Each town has its own fixed day for their main festivities between December 7th and January 6th. Below, we will give you an overview of the most well-known festivals of light and highlight what’s unique about each one. We will also give you some helpful tips for fully enjoying this magical tradition.
Every year, the first festival of light in Franconian Switzerland takes place in the small district of Gößweinstein on December 7th. Starting from the St. Erhard church in Wichsenstein, the parade of lights moves along the streets and rocky slopes. About 1,000 wax and flare candles light up the sky above the village where visitors and churchgoers celebrate together.
In Oberailsfeld, perpetual adoration concludes with a festival of light on December 20th. Here, the celebrations have a more religious focus, and the candlelight procession is not the type to end with food and drink vendors. Instead, the day of prayer begins early in the morning and continues until dusk. About 100 wood fires and sacred signs cover the hillsides around Oberailsfeld during the parade. This creates a beautifully picturesque atmosphere and a very special pre-Christmas celebration.
In the small village of Volsbach, the festival of light takes place on December 23rd. Starting from the Pfarrei Mariä Geburt church, the procession moves through the town with about 3,400 wax candles. This celebration inspires a meditative mindset – a great preface to the Christmas holidays.
A festival of light ignites in Gößweinstein every year on December 26th. The setting of Gößweinstein is a phenomenally picturesque location: The illuminated basilica in Gößweinstein and Gößweinstein castle look particularly dramatic against the hilly and rocky backdrop. The countless small fires in the streets and the flare candles along the steep slopes create a stunning atmosphere full of celebration. In recent years, an incredible 3,000 people attended the procession in Gößweinstein. Afterwards, mulled wine and bratwurst stands get set up, so the community and visitors can end the evening enjoying food and drink together.
The annual festival of light starting at the St. Martin church in Nankendorf on December 31 is special not only because of its date on New Year’s Eve, but also because of the incredible lights involved. Thousands of wood fires decorate the hillsides around Nankendorf after dusk. Among the countless candles in the procession, you will also find red and green flare candles, making the parade of lights in Nankendorf a bit more unique. Here, you’ll not only find fire and candles burning, but also crosses and other Christian symbols, which are placed along the way of the parade. The festival of lights in Nankendorf is a very special experience every year, made possible above all by the local fire department.
Perpetual adoration takes place in Obertrubach on January 2nd and 3rd. On the second day, prayers end with a parade that starts at the St. Laurentius church. As the procession moves through town, the streets and the rock walls are decorated with burning wood fires, candles, and Christian symbols to festively mark the conclusion of perpetual adoration. Set in a beautiful area, this festival of light inspires both reflection and introspection heading into the new year.
In Pottenstein, the festival of light takes place every year on Epiphany (January 6th). The procession in Pottenstein is considered one of the biggest, with thousands of visitors turning out annually to see the enchanting lights. Particularly impressive in Pottenstein are the large fires that are lit on the rocky peaks of the mountains surrounding the town. The decorated triumphal arches of Pottenstein and the countless candles arouse feelings of fascination and wonder. The procession starts in Pottenstein from the St. Bartholomew church.
What to Know Before You Go
The bigger the festival of lights, the more of a draw it has for visitors. Pottenstein is a great example, as its impressive fires attract up to 18,000 visitors a year – some coming from far away to take part. If you want to follow the crowds, be sure to plan well in advance. In the case of Pottenstein, some late comers won’t even make it to the site of the festivities due to overcrowding. When traveling by car, plan to arrive early and be ready to park outside of town. If you’d rather avoid the crowds, your best bet is to go to one of the smaller festivals. Wichsenstein or Volsbach are our insider tips!
Lastly, while the prayers start at different times in different churches, most of the parades all start around 5pm.
Visiting a festival of light in Franconian Switzerland is not only visually captivating, but also tons of fun. The special atmosphere of the towns, created by the sea of candles, fires, and flares, leads to a visceral experience for everyone involved. The communal singing and the brass bands only enhance the electric energy, making a festival of light a great way to start the Christmas season or the new year.
Before planning your own trip, be sure to decide whether you want to experience a smaller, more intimate festival of light or one of the larger, more popular ones. While the more popular festivals have more lights, you also have to be game to join in the chaos of thousands of people descending upon a very small area. Small or big, whichever way you go, the festivals of light in Franconian Switzerland will make for an unforgettable experience.