a little history

The first Lismore Lantern Parade was held in 1994 and was produced by local artists and performers as a way for the community to showcase their creativity, to honour the cycles of the seasons and the connection to the land in an authentic, contemporary celebration. The event was also created in response to community concerns about antisocial behaviour and economic decline in Lismore’s Central Business District as a way to bring people back into the often deserted city centre, in a safe and celebratory environment – lighting the heart of the city.

The early events were formally organised by the Lismore Folk Trust Incorporated as a lead up to the Lismore Folk Festival held later that year. Today, the Lismore Lantern Parade is proudly produced and coordinated by LightnUp Incorporated. LightnUp Inc is a community based not for profit arts enterprise that grew out of the Lismore Arts Council Incorporated, which in turn developed from the Lismore Folk Trust Inc.

The first lantern parade in 1994 was a very casual affair, almost a meander around the CBD, with no road closures or traffic control.  In the weeks before lantern workshops were held in an empty restaurant next to the old art gallery, with about 200 or so people taking part to create simple candle lit pyramid and diamond lanterns.  These little lanterns are still the mainstay of the school and community programs. There were no big lanterns other than the large ‘sun lantern’ floating on the river to be burned at the finale of the event.

Approximately 1,000 people stood on the pavements to watch, whilst the drinkers in the bars came out to laugh and jeer at the hippies as they passed, and sadly some of the church goers booed and spat at the procession, because they thought it was some terrible pagan ritual!!

25 years on, the streets are now lined 20 deep in places, nearly 30,000 people fill the streets, the pubs love the business their parade creates, it is still an alcohol free event. And one of the loveliest lanterns these days is created and carried by the Combined Churches of Lismore, with a large contingent of the congregations, young and old, carrying the little candle lit lanterns.  In fact the Lismore Lantern Parade is truly welcoming to people from all walks of life, across the all socio-economic demographics and political persuasions. However, one major rule is no slogans, no political posters and no handing out of leaflets etc. We encourage groups to be creative and think outside the box to tell their story. Like the Lock the Gate anti CSG organisation, who created a life-size yellow 5 bar farm gate covered with fairy lights and a big heart shaped padlock. Of course groups promoting anti social activities such as alcohol or guns are not permitted in the parade.

In the early parades all the lanterns were lit with ordinary kitchen candles and as our lanterns became more ambitious in size and design so the number of candles inside them grew. One 5m Dragon had 68 candles inside her, and never caught fire. Eventually she was lit by our unique 12v /battery system and is still going strong after 21 years, and several new skins. Now proudly adopted by the Ballina based Rainbow Region Dragon Boat Racing Team and they maintain her to look gorgeous each year. And despite being severely trashed in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie in 2017, she was beautifully refurbished for the 2018 lantern parade.

Within two or three years of the first event the lantern parade had become a popular community event, with several thousand people attending, and as organisers it was time we ‘got real’. Permits and insurance became a part of the process. The parade still assembled close to the centre of town and walked around the block finishing back in the car park by the river where we created some sort of finale.  This finale ranged from choirs on an old river-boat decorated with lanterns (sadly no longer around) to the burning of a big lantern and bonfire on the river, and eventually we included fireworks to add to the celebration. We extended the event by including bands on a small stage in the CBD. This was of mixed benefit, one band in particular had been highly recommended, but turned out to be a dreadful heavy metal band that had our audience fleeing after the first number – not a success. 

Since the beginning we encouraged our visitors to use Lismore’s growing selection of cafes and restaurants, but after about 10 years it was clear from our visitor surveys that the queues were too long and visitors were not very happy. A few local food vans and stall were introduced, limiting them to about 5, we now have 28 and they still sell out, as do the cafes.  We also invited local artists and craftspeople to sell, workshop or display their wares. We held a competition in the local paper to find a name for the new market – the winner was Market deLight, and it remains the name to this day.

Each year the festival themes are drawn from community sentiment and sense of place, our stories, past and present.

One of the greatest risks for an out door event is the weather – and of course we chose mid winter. The rationale being it was a recognised Low Season for Tourism, and historically a dry time of year. It also seemed a good time because in many cultures a lantern parade is always held on or around the longest night of the year, Winter Solstice – becoming a metaphor for optimism and hope for the better times to come as the days grow longer, and in the days before refrigerators and super markets, the food would be growing and our bellies would be full once more!!

It must also be said that in the 24years that the Lantern Parade has been held the event has never actually been cancelled. There have only been three really wet years on the night, each one devastating in it’s own way. There have been some cloudy or damp ones, but mostly many brilliant sunny days, starry winter nights!! 

A defining characteristic of the Lismore Lantern Parade, apart from its incredibly deep community engagement is its resilience. A light never diminished!

Other than the 2017 Flood our resilience has been mainly tested by major last minute changes. Since 1994 the parade has moved venue or parade route 8 times, on many occasions with very short notice. These have been usually due to weather conditions rendering the finale site unusable in the weeks before, or in 2018 because the renovations to the finale site we had moved to, away from the flooding river, were so far behind schedule it would not be ready in time for our event. On each occasion we were required to virtually re-imagine the whole event in a matter of weeks or even days! Challenging, but hey, it makes life interesting!

Along with resilience comes flexibility and creativity. One of the major selling points of the Lantern Parade is the beauty of the lanterns themselves, particularly because they are all hand made in Lismore with a high attention to detail. Because they are often big, expensive and time consuming to make they do not necessarily all change every year.  This could be seen as a possible weakness or risk, some comments in surveys have complained about the sameness. However, they are also so well loved that many community groups have a great emotional investment in them and want to carry them each year, some people travel many 100s of km each year to participate and carry “their” lantern. We endeavour to counter the ‘same old same old’ risk and mix things up each year, with some spectacular new lanterns, refurbishment and tweaking of the older ones and add new elements to the parade and festival itself – and always be open to new ideas.

For many years we produced a spectacular “Fire Event” at the end of the parade, initially near the CBD. Then when we had to change the parade route in 1999 because we had grown too big, we moved to an area by the river called Heritage Park. Then when it was renovated we moved closer to the water in Riverside Park, which was fantastic for the Fiery finale which included gorgeous 14m high ply wood back drops (main Image) which we covered with pyrotechnics, and became a huge bonfires. We used fabulous theatrical lighting, fire art and choreographed lanterns. Canoes, rafts and kayaks carried lanterns on the river, and 120 candlelit lanterns hung like a waterfall from the bridge behind. For many of us 2002 - 2011 was our creative heyday , with original scores commissioned, 100s of performers, the river and great stories – but it was very, very cold, there was no real way of collecting  entry money, other than donation buckets, and it took people away from the CBD – and of course the weather patterns changed and we had three devastatingly wet years out of  five and it nearly bankrupted us – time to move again!

2009 was the first time the lantern parade was unable to use the Riverside Park, so we reversed the parade and produced the finale in an open sports field close to the CBD – Jolley Fields. When in 20012 we were once again forced out of the riverside and into a car park, the decision was made to negotiate with Council to use a gated sports field with grandstands – Oakes Oval.  We assembled the parade near the river and brought it through the heart of the city, down the back lanes and into the fancy Oakes Oval. It lost much of the magic of the river, but we sold $23,000 worth of tickets. We were still able to build a Main Image (with a number of restrictions), it was not the same but it was OK. The Market delight and the Carnivale stage grew and we were pretty OK for a few years until 2018 and we were forced to move again.

We had everything planned well in advance for the 2018 Lantern Parade, we were hoping for a gentle year. In April 2017 we had been devastated by the flood resulting from cyclone Debbie, we had had to move to the new building we had purchased but not yet renovated because our old building was deemed uninhabitable and unsafe. We had in fact been given notice to move two years before because it was so ram shackled.

However, a gentle year in 2018 was not to be. At the beginning of March we were informed that Oakes Oval was not going to be available – we had no finale venue and had lost $23K out of our budget – just like that!! We were also going to be away on tour for much of April because ‘it was going to be an easy year and all the prep was done”! It was really a matter of taking a deep breath and just doing it. There was no option to go back to the river, and there were no other open or fenced spaces, so we decided to move into the newly completed Quadrangle (Quad) in the CBD, and extend into a medium sized car park adjacent. And turn the space into a Wonderland, and we did!

We kept a very tight budget and called on the support of our fabulous community and in excess of 20 community groups and 1000 school students created a wonderful parade, we had a fantastic KidsArtFest, a fun Carnivale area in the street next to the Quad with naughty food and a bit of a fun fair, which we will further develop in 2019. The Heartbeats Festival Stage run by the Conservatorium and the Southern Cross University ‘went off’.  A delegation from Lismore’s Japanese Sister City visited Lismore especially for the Lantern Parade, and were thrilled. The Japanese Consul General and his party will return in 2019 to carry their lantern MikuChan in the Lismore Lantern Parade

Plans are already well advanced for 2019 and we are really looking forward to our 25th Anniversary as we bring home the Rivers of Light from across this fair land.

Read more
Ad 2 image

sign up for our newsletter