The festival is a tribute to the Virgin Mary, the origins of which date back to the 17th century. In 1643, there was an outbreak of plague in Europe and the magistrates of the town of Lyon appealed to the archbishop for the protection of the Virgin Mary. In return, they agreed, every year, on September 8th, to climb the colline de Fourvière, a small hill to the west of the town and the site of a 12th-century chapel devoted to Mary, to pay homage to the virgin.
In 1852, a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary was due to be inaugurated, on September 8th, at the top of the chapel’s bell tower. That year, however, the river Soane burst its banks and the foundry where the statue was being sculpted was flooded. The inauguration was postponed until December 8th, the day of the Festival of the Immaculate Conception. When the planned celebrations could not take place, once again, due to bad weather, the inhabitants nevertheless all lit lanterns in the windows of their homes to mark the event. Church leaders also lit up the Chapel of Fourvière. From that year on, the inhabitants lit candles and the town was illuminated, every year.
The Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which replaced the original medieval chapel, was built in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. In 1870, threatened by the advance of the Prussian troops in eastern France, the inhabitants of Lyon appealed to the archbishop, once more, and vowed to extend the existing church if Lyon was spared.