It’s not much after four in the afternoon and the winter sun has set way to the west of Edinburgh castle. At the end of November the city is ready for a long dark night but birds are singing in East Princes Street Gardens as if dawn was breaking. And no wonder. The sky is ablaze with 200,000 Christmas lights.
I pause on the steps of the Mound battling with my inner Scrooge. I have always loved Christmas lights. There’s romance in the glow of candles and temptation in twinkling strings of electric bulbs. Maybe it’s deep in my DNA: desire for light in the darkest month of the year may well be wired into the Northern Hemisphere psyche – I remember, on my first visit to a Christmassy Copenhagen, being transfixed by a beautiful willow weeping with thousands of tiny bulbs in the Tivoli Gardens. I wished there was more imaginative light back home.
Even so, I’m curious about Edinburgh’s new radiance. There’s a bigger and brasher boldness about this year’s Christmas festival which reminds me of the relentless commercialisation of the Fringe and that’s probably no co-oincidence. Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals are now organised by a coalition of the very successful Underbelly and Unique Events in a three year contract secured by City of Edinburgh Council at a public cost of £1,297,456 a year for three years – or a total of £3,892,368 with an option to extend the contract for two more years.
The aim of all this brilliance is to set cash tills ringing and – in the words of the creative coalition’s pledge to the council – ‘Maintain our city’s reputation as the cultural capital of the world’. It seems hard to believe but not so long ago Christmas in Edinburgh was quietly celebrated with a few silvery lights strung through trees on the edge of Princes Street Gardens, some half-hearted decorations in George Street, and the Messiah in cathedrals and concert halls while New Year was ushered in with the bells on the High Street and maybe a punch up round the Tron.
All that changed in 1993 when Unique Events introduced the first Hogmanay Party. Now the city fills with people from far and wide and the three day extravaganza generates upwards of £30 million for the local economy. Even the more family oriented Christmas programme brings in a lot of cash. Last year, according to Underbelly and Unique Events, Edinburgh’s Christmas (all six weeks of it) not only sold 387,462 tickets but reduced street crime and increased spending in city centre shops, pubs and cafes. Local people spent an average of £134 each during a visit to the city centre with just £45 of that going to the Xmas fest. Visitors from further afield spent more.
That’s a lot of dosh on gluhwein, gifts and whirls on the Big Wheel (those tickets don’t come cheap) and, indeed, there were grumbles about costs so this year the organisers are offering 20% discount to customers with an EH postcode. (How do we prove it, I wonder.)
And yet, that inner Scrooge is wondering about the sustainability of it all. Perhaps perversely, a sentimental part of me now hankers after a simpler celebration. What is the carbon footprint of Edinburgh’s bright new Christmas: freezing ice rinks (in an unseasonably warm winter), heating pop-up bars, running fairground rides – all illuminated with 200,000 individual light bulbs and 10 kilometres of cabling (according to the Edinburgh Guide)? The city council’s report says Edinburgh’s Christmas comes with an “Environmental Policy ….undertaking to minimise impact on the environment which includes the reduction of emissions; the efficient use of energy; the use of biodegradable and recycled products and minimisation of waste amongst others.”
Cities need light, especially during the early darkness of winter and Edinburgh’s policy is outlined in an interesting document called Darker Skies: A Sustainable Light Strategy which identifies Christmas as a time when ‘city dressing’ is required. And people need fun, especially now when there is not a lot of cheer about, so we might be thankful for enterprising spirits like Underbelly and Unique Events for bringing a party to Edinburgh. But I’m also hearing those birds tweeting through the artificial light of Princes Street Garden. Birds – wildlife in general – are under severe pressure as humans reshape the environment; changing the seasons, poisoning the atmosphere, turning night into day. Light pollution is a threat to birds. Maybe next year we can turn the lights down?