Christmas in the City of Lights

Night time in Paris, France, with a lit Christmas tree in the foreground.
Christmas lights put Paris pedestrians into the mood of the season.

Paris is a most magical place. There are always new sights. There are always stories. On this trip, we were with friends with small children, and we had only a few hours left in which to capture and consume some of that magic. Time to get moving. On the early December afternoon we had together, it was unusually chilly and seasonably grey, so we bundled up against the cold and set off to search for something new and magical. 

Paris street with lights & bus
Christmas lights surround visitors, marking the season

The appellation “City of Lights” has several explanations, some likely more fitting than others.   Among the most obvious, sometime in the mid- to late-1800s, Paris was the first European city to deploy gas streetlights throughout the city. As one who enjoys walking in the city, one simple thought grabbed my imagination—what would Paris be like in the dark, without lights? Hooray for les lampes à gaz! But on a deeper level, Paris was the center of the Enlightenment in the Age of Reason. It was the source of new political, philosophical, and scientific thought. It led a revolution in artistic expression. Much of the culture we now take as a given was conceived and refined here. Both explanations are true. And there is something magical for me in both explanations. Paris sparkles either way. But I like the second explanation a bit more. 

Paris Sainte Chapelle rose stained glass window
Within the towering vaults of Sainte Chapelle are spectacular side windows flanking a beautiful rose.
Paris Sainte-Chapelle vaulted ceiling detail
Sainte-Chapelle’s vaulted ceiling

Among the special experiences of light hidden within Paris are the evocative, muted stained glass windows and stunningly detailed flourishes on the columns and capitals inside Saint-Chapelle, the royal chapel of King Louis IX. Located on the north point of Île de la Cité, the birthplace and center of Paris, this thirteenth century chapel is among the most beautiful expressions of gothic architecture and stained-glass artistry anywhere in the world. Its darkened interior glows with saturated hues: reds, blues, yellows, and greens. Its impossibly high vaulting creates majestic, backlit visuals that are unique, and rival any at Notre Dame, Chartres, Westminster, or Saint Peter’s Basilica. Perhaps the magic is because the space is so small. The light in Sainte-Chapelle is distinctly limited, focusing attention. The collaboration of its colors, its carvings, and its ceilings creates an ethereal feeling. A special Paris lives here, its lights and vistas lingering vaguely in memory like the finest quality perfume. 

The kids in our party are less awed by the silent beauty of Sainte-Chapelle than are the adults. The kids want action. They ask about Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. I tell them he lives at, or actually in, the cistern under the Opera at the Palais Garnier, a few blocks northwest of the city center. And yes, the main chandelier, or more precisely parts of it, did fall and panic the opera’s audience, killing one patron and injuring several more. That is all certain little inquiring minds needed to hear to make a visit mandatory. 

The Paris Opera auditorium floor seats with tiered boxes for VIP guests.
The Paris Opera auditorium floor seats with tiered boxes for VIP guests.
Paris Opera's sweeping expanses of marble take patrons from the grand entrance to the boxes and the main stage.
Paris Opera’s sweeping expanses of marble take patrons from the grand entrance to the boxes and the main stage.

The Palais Garnier was designed and built for the old Paris Opera.  In 1860, Jean-Louis Charles Garnier, a relatively inexperienced architect, shocked the Parisian design community when he won the design competition for the new Paris Opera at the tender age of 35. His intensely baroque design was completed and opened in 1875, revealing sweeping interiors and beautifully balanced, punctuated design elements. The building became the showpiece of the Second Empire. Perhaps more important than the music performed there, it was the place for the rich and powerful to see and be seen at the close of the Nineteenth Century. Then, as now, the special sparkle of Paris glitters here in magnificent display. And as is the custom, for the performance to begin this evening, Box 5 will be vacant, it being reserved specially for Le Fantôme. 

Le Fantome enjoyed the opera each night from this box.
Le Fantome enjoyed the opera each night from this box.

Outside the Opera building, the street explodes with shards of light. A Christmas feeling captures and envelops all passersby. The windows of Printemps and Galleries Lafayette illuminate the Boulevard Hausmann. The kids push to the front to see the windows with their story designs and opulent decorations. All manner of kid’s characters animate displays featuring famous brands, like Ferragamo and Baccarat, or other more contemporary treasures. Kids gape and point and beg to go inside. Entering the Galleries Lafayette, we immediately look straight up at the famous domed roof with its dripping steamers of silver light. Hovering above the shimmering merchandise displays is an ascending Christmas tree that actually might be a rocket ship. The glittering array of Christmas gifts fades from consciousness. Reality is suspended, except I know I could fall down while looking up. Nevertheless, I am lost in a reverie born of FAO Schwartz, a former resident of New York’s 5th Avenue, and a Christmas venue of unequaled joy. The lights quivering in the dome transform the space into spirit. There is a different, but very real magic existent right here in the middle of Paris. 

And finally, because no trip to Paris would be complete without it, we take the escalator to the top—just seven floors because of Paris’ height restrictions—and look across the rooftops. It is from here that the full display of the City of Lights is radiant. To the south, the Eiffel Tower, a flame of 20,000 yellow-orange lights, with a rotating beacon covering the city, is visible for miles. To the north, atop Montmartre, Sacré Coeur’s domes glimmer as a chilly, blue apparition on this December night. To the east, the scaffolding that marks the reconstruction of the roof and spire lost to fire shortly before Covid, heralds the rebirth of Notre Dame. We wait impatiently until the top of the hour when the Eiffel Tower crews turn on the sparkling points of light embedded in the Tower’s structural elements. The twinkling, dancing lights take our breath and suspend time. It is quite a majestic scene in itself, and a most appropriate cap to a long afternoon and early evening sampling Paris’ soul as expressed by her sights and her lights. 

"Paris Je T'Aime" reads a sign atop Galleries Lafayette.
The Eiffel Tower peeks through a timeless message atop the Galleries Lafayette.
The beacon atop The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower’s powerful beacon rotates through Paris’ neighborhoods marking the season.

We are scheduled to depart Charles de Gaulle just after tomorrow’s first light, so it is time to pack Paris away one more time. Home is just over the horizon. But we know if fortune smiles, we will never really leave Paris because Paris never leaves us. 

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