Capitalising on the dark

Photo by Phil Wilkinson
Issued on behalf of Christmas at the Botanics.
Free first use only.
Images if the 2019 Christmas at the Botanics, held at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh RBGE.

Darkness is an abundant resource during December in Edinburgh. To many of the city’s residents, trapped in an indoor workplace during the season’s fleeting daylight hours, this may sound like an insufferably upbeat formulation, but for anyone wishing to capitalise on festive cheer, it’s a gift. Christmas markets, cosy shop-fronts, street illuminations, the warm glow of charcoal on a chestnut stand, and many other facets of this most hygge period, all rely on the background of darkness for their cosy radiance. Among the organisations making hay while the sun doesn’t shine is the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, whose spectacular festival of luminescence, Christmas at the Botanics, is now in its third year.

Spawn has visited in previous years, and had already been with a friend this year, but she had no reservations about returning as our guide. Extravaganzas like this can often fall short, with some of the displays seeming a bit meh, or with obvious missed opportunities to provide decent food and drink, but RBGE are absolutely on point — my only criticism would relate to the moderately eye-watering sum of money we were parted from during our visit. A variety of groups were responsible for designing different features, which ranged from ornamental walkways to musically motivated set-pieces. All of it was very pretty, and some of it was very clever — there was really only one piece which didn’t quite come off for me, an illuminated skit on ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’.

Most effective were two quite similar displays. One floated a grid of origami boats on one of the gardens’ ponds, and colour-cycled their lights in a complex sequence, which progressed from a disordered rainbow to a series of waves and washes of colour. The other was a similar arrangement, but involved spheres laid out on the ground, responding to a lengthy piece of choral music, with visual themes developing in a creative counterpoint to the musical ones. There was also an extended seasonal projection on the facade of Inverleith House, including a slightly disturbing scene in which a Teddy bear was knocked unconscious by a falling heart, its inert form then dragged out of view by a toy racing car.

We traversed magical corridors of twinkle, ambled through forests of glowing spirals, staggered through a garden of lasers, coming to rest periodically at vendors of marshmallows, sausages, churros, and of course, mulled alcoholic drinks. Everything was priced very much at a premium, and we spent considerably more than the substantial cost of our tickets on this stuff — I didn’t really begrudge the expense, but it seems a shame that anyone without the liberty to blow quite a few tenners per person won’t be able to share in the experience. Although children under 4 and the carers of disabled visitors are admitted for free, there are no other concessions, and anyone raising a family on the minimum wage is likely to think at least twice. It’s a stroll through the garden of privilege, but for seasonal cheer that’s not overladen with the usual commercial Christmas bullshit, this experience is hard to beat.

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