If Christmas did not exist, I think modern Britons would have invented their own winter holiday. After all, the ancients had their own festivals to ensure the rebirth of the sun, and as the weather turns colder and days shorter, there needs to be something to look forward to and add a splash of
warmth into the very heart of the dark winter months. Gifts and silly jumpers would be optional, but bright lights and colours mandatory.
One of the best places to get an idea of how this winter celebration would be run is at Longleat Safari Park. Throughout much of the year, Longleat is open to those who want a walk—or rather ride—on the wild side: lions and tigers and wolves—as well as elephants, giraffes, and a whole host of other animals—can be viewed on a drive-through safari that is situated on the grounds of an Elizabethan manor house.
But come November and the early setting of the sun, new creatures come out to play at Longleat’s Festival of Light. Although it only started in 2014, it is easy to see how it has developed into an annual tradition (at least in my household!). Chinese lanterns themselves have a much longer history: dating back over 2000 years, lanterns made of silk and bamboo have evolved into the incredibly creative shapes that can be seen today, and which are still made by skilled craftspeople in China.
Last year Longleat went all out, celebrating the 150th birthday of Beatrix Potter and the 50th anniversary of the opening of the safari park with truly stunning displays of glow-in-the-dark wildlife and favourite childhood characters. This year was slightly more subdued, but the theme—The Magic of Storytelling—lent itself to an incredible array of classic fairy tales. Cinderella, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hansel and Gretel, the Frog Prince, the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Thumbelina, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast, and the Snow Queen were all present and accounted for. From further afield, Ivan and the Firebird lit up the night with a distinctive Russian skyline, and closer to home, there was the Gurt Wurm of Shervage Wood. Although not a local legend I was familiar with, this dragon came complete with sounds effects and breathed steam!
The following week we were off to London to visit with friends and take in the festivities of Christmas at Kew. The first part went without a hitch, and we even got to enjoy the lights and decorations along Oxford Street (the crowds of people along Oxford Street were slightly less enjoyable). However, we hit a slight snag regarding Kew: my husband hadn’t booked the event in advance and tickets were sold out. But we headed out to our B&B anyway to see if anything could be done.
The gardens of Kew have a long history: they began to take shape in the 18th century and became the national botanical garden in 1840, just in time for the Victorian mania for plant collecting. As explorers scouted the globe and established colonies, they also send back samples of the local flora, much of which ended up at Kew (the fauna would eventually find a home in the Natural History Museum).
Despite being a fan of both gardens and historic things, I had never been to Kew previously. Nor was it the most auspicious of introductions when we walked up at midday. The weather was grey and drizzly, and the nice lady at the desk said that the Temperate House—the largest surviving Victorian greenhouse and a symbol of Kew—was closed for renovations. She also didn’t know if it would be possible to get tickets for the Christmas event: we would have to show up at 4:00pm and take our chances.
So we plunged into Kew for a few hours, not sure what we would come across … and within a few minutes I was smitten. The wide open spaces, the greenhouses, the lakes: it was all a perfect antidote for holiday stress. And being a weekday on a grey, drizzly afternoon meant that we had the place practically to ourselves.
We started out at the Hive; this is a work of modern art based on the activity of bees at one of Kew’s bee hives. Although they were a bit sluggish on the day we were there (and who could blame them in mid-December?) it’s an amazing structure and one I hope to visit again when the weather is a bit better and the bees are properly buzzing.
Then it was off to the lovely and well-heated Winter Garden. Filled with ferns, orchids, cacti, and other plants from warmer climes, things began to look more and more familiar the longer we spent there. By the time we left, I was convinced that many of the plants could be found in my parents’ garden in Florida.
As we walked to our next destination, I heard a familiar noise, one that woke me up on weekends in high school and which still hear in the background when I talk to my parents: a high-pitch screeching perfectly designed to travel through leafy jungle canopies. I stopped walking. “Do they have parrots?”
Sure enough, bright green ring-necked parakeets were perched on a nest hole. As we climbed the Treetop Walkway, which takes visitors 18 meters (60 feet) into the trees, we had even better views of these beautiful but invasive birds. Colonies of these small parrots began to form in the 1970s when pets were released or escaped, and there are now well-established flocks throughout the London area. At the moment there is a wait-and-see approach to monitor how they impact native species. I have mixed feelings; while I recognise the dangers that non-native wildlife can cause (just Google “Burmese pythons in Florida” or “lion fish invasion” for more information), their acrobatic antics and bright colours add a fun, exotic flavour to birdwatching.
Before we knew it, it was closing time. To atone for his lack of booking, my husband braved the queue to see if we could get tickets for the evening’s festivities … and got them. Once it was full dark, we were off into Christmas at Kew.
It was very different from Longleat, with a set path to follow through a section of the gardens and no overarching theme. Instead each display seemed to be created by different groups of artists and were more on the abstract side. There were singing trees, whose lights changed along with the harmonies. A multi-coloured bridge had lights that shimmered like the borealis. One area had bubble machines filling the air with thousands of bubbles that sparkled in the glow of a nearby tunnel of lights, which, once inside, looked like you were making the jump to hyperspace. The one display I was less certain about involved rotating Christmas trees surrounded by dozens upon dozens of flaming sticks. I think the designers were going for the warmth of Christmas but it came across more as “forest on fire”.
I thought Longleat had an edge over Kew’s Christmas displays, but it soon became obvious they had saved the best for last. Using the Palm House and water vapour from the lake as a canvas, they put on a stunning and hypnotic light show set to music. I could have watched it all night.
I think everyone has their own definition of Christmas magic, whether it’s a child’s first visit to Santa Claus, a blanket of snow turning the world into a winter wonderland, or sipping a hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire. For me, it’s about planting the seed of spring by illuminating the darkness with colour and light.