Eindhoven, city of light. I was born there and have spent the majority of my life living there. For years now, I’ve noticed something odd about the passing of time in Eindhoven. Every year at a given point, metal structures covered from head to toe in light bulbs appear across town. And every year, this sudden appearance prompts the same question in my mind: “How could it possibly be that time of year again? Didn’t the last Lichtjesroute (literally translated Route of Lights) take place just last month?” Nope: the Lichtjesroute is an annual event. The light ornaments appear every year towards the end of summer, and are lit at the 18th of September, to commemorate the liberation of Eindhoven in 1944. They are pulled down again nearly a month later, after about 200,000 people have driven, cycled or walked around the city to admire the lights. Yet, seeing the structures arise year after year, I could easily make myself believe that they’re always there, non-stop. They are Eindhoven.
Modern wouldn’t be my term of choice to describe the Lichtjesroute. In a city that prides itself on innovation, technology and design, the event is about the worst advocate of that image you could imagine. Nowadays, that is. Yet, to me, the Lichtjesroute is actually the most iconic and representative event that one could pick to characterize the city.
I was about eight or nine when I first saw the lights (note the ‘s’) on a birthday party outing. Packed in the backseat of a Toyota with about six other kids, we spent an hour and a half oh-ing and ah-ing at the light ornaments along the route. I doubt the kid in the middle had any clue what the ride was about, since the others blocked the windows, but regardless, this was magic to all of us. In later years, it became more common to take the route by bike, so I cycled behind my parents, trying to navigate through the traffic jams at the popular spots. A different kind of magic.
I have to confess I was about eleven when I last followed the route, but to this day I can’t imagine Eindhoven without it. And neither can most residents. That’s not because the Lichtjesroute is the most brilliant or spectacular event Eindhoven has ever put forth. In fact, I guess nowadays the spectacle-factor might be easily surpassed by a lavishly decorated Christmas tree in the mall. But the event is characteristic of Eindhoven. The light bulb is the city’s base and to commemorate the liberation through light has been the city’s tradition since 1945. Over the years, the Lichtjesroute has become public property, cultural heritage, shared pride and nostalgia. It has somehow been able to ward off the ubiquitous pressure for hipness.
So, in the year 2013, kids still oh and ah at the magic of the lights. Adults oh and ah at the tradition, the sense of community and the refreshingly simple charm of the ornaments. When everything else changes, at least you can be sure that the metal structures covered from head to toe in light bulbs will appear again. And they always arrive sooner than you expected.
By Rianne Freriks