LIKE THE THREE kings following the star to the Christ Child and his Mother Mary, people arrive in caravans of cars and buses. They come from New England, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and even Canada to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, Mass., on a pilgrimage to enjoy the largest display of religious Christmas lights in the east.
The shrine was dedicated Dec. 8, 1953, the first day of the Marian Year. The Christmas Festival of Lights began immediately, and the annual display continues to grow. This year, more than 300,000 lights will transform some 15 acres of the shrine's extensive grounds into a sparkling wonderland.
Although workers start preparing the festival in September, four artists work from winter through spring painting dozens of display pieces, such as the many animals for the “peaceable kingdom” referred to in Isaiah 11.
Every year, at least 250,000 people have their spirits lifted by the results. “Slowly but surely it becomes an educational experience,” Father Ernest Corriveau MS, the shrine director says. The purpose is “not just to be dazzled by the lights, but to learn something.”
Through the variety of displays, alternated yearly and joined by new scenes or pieces, the shrine tells the real stories of Christmas.
Whether through this season from Advent to Epiphany, or through daily activities all year, “Our concern is the evangelization of people,” says Father Corriveau.
The lights go on every day at a 5:00 p.m. ceremony that includes an opening prayer, a Gospel account of the birth of Jesus, a procession to the crèche with the Babe, carol singing, and a blessing.
“The crèche is the focal point,” the shrine director says. “It's set up in such a way that people are naturally drawn to it.”
Life-sized figures placed in the pavilion with the formal evergreen gardens glistening in lights before it, fill the crèche. The beds of straw need regular replenishing because people like to take a piece home.
A wide walk like a huge, arched frame around the gardens contains the way of the cross. Integrated with them this year is a display of the “O” antiphons from the Advent liturgies. From these and many other illustrations, Father Corriveau says “people get to learn a lot about Christianity and the Bible.”
He enjoys walking to the nearby Garden of the Apparition to explain the story of Mary's appearance at La Salette in France to the eager children, their parents, and other adult visitors wondering about the three scenes of statues winding up the hillside between brightly lit stone staircases and amid Christmas lights.
The scenes begin with Mary seated and crying, as the visionaries Maximin and Melanie first saw her, then move to Mary standing and saying to them, “Come here, my children, do not be afraid. I am here to tell you great news.” Finally, at the top of the hillside, Mary looks silently toward Rome while the two children gaze at her.
Her words in that 1846 apparition— “My children, make this known to all my people”—certainly apply to the message taught daily at the shrine and also at the Christmas festival. Father Corriveau sees a beautiful learning experience occurring at many of the sites as entire families are involved.
Mothers and fathers often have children take turns reading the lines on the Christmas Alphabet display, from A to Z—“A” is for Angels … and so on— which tells the story of the season. “Youngsters love to be involved this way,” the director notes.
The alphabet display lines the walk circling the rosary pond a few acres from the crèche, and the letters are spaced among the 15 mysteries of the rosary illustrated in mosaics. A large rosary outlines the peninsula stretching into the pond. Each decade's big block beads “floating” in air are sure to delight the children. These are permanent displays.
The rose garden plays host to the story of St. Nicholas as the inspiration for Santa Claus. Tall storyboards painted by Sister Gertrude Gaudette from Fall River, Mass., have adjoining scrolls explaining how these two figures are related. 0n the way to the garden, the walk from the rosary pond passes large bright medallions interpreting crèche scenes from unusual places—even around an igloo.
Near the main buildings, a Native American crèche is set up where the new church, holding 800, will be built starting this spring. For the last 40 years, services have been held in the temporary chapel seating 250, although Masses or special occasions often attracted 3,000 or more.
Nearby there is a small theater where another popular Christmas display draws crowds—175 crèches from around the world, on loan from the collection of Father Timothy Goldrick.
Between chapel and theater is the peaceful Reconciliation Chapel, a serene place warmly rendered in wood, where confessions are heard every day, all day.
“The charism of the La Salettes is reconciliation,” says Father Corriveau, who was head of this province of the Immaculate Conception and, for six years, superior general of the order in Rome. “Confessions are at the heart of the shrine.”
Christmas is a natural time for reconciliation, and he sees many people coming to see the lights decide to go to confession too. Father Corriveau claims 25,000 confessions were heard last year. In fact, many return to the Church through this sacrament here.
The shrine grounds are never closed and half a million people journey here annually for a wide range of daily spiritual activities: Masses, prayer groups, a Christian-perspective counseling center, ethnic pilgrimages, a coffeehouse, outdoor concerts by Christian musicians, retreats, spiritual direction, and adult education. There is also a gift shop and a cafeteria.
Early morning through late night, people pray by the Sacred Heart statue, in the different gardens, at the circular outdoor candle island, and climb the stairs on their knees (or walk up beside them) to the crucifix.
The Christmas Festival of Lights is in full wattage from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., but stays on until 10:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through the feast of the Epiphany. Some 50 miles south of Boston and eight miles north of Providence, R.I., the display can be reached from Interstate 95 to Route 123 into Attleboro, where it joins Route 118, and the shrine on the outskirts of town.
About 30 miles east is Plymouth, Mass. with the living history museum, Plymouth Plantation and Mayflower II. The Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence is a national award winner. These are best for an extra day if you really want to squeeze in anything other than the Festival of Lights display of the Christmas story and the season's real meaning.
“We try to educate and have people remember through the beauty of the lights,” says Father Corriveau. “They can learn in a way that will stay because it captures the imagination.”
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Conn.