Reimagining Christmas

Back in September The Scotsman spelled out the line from Underbelly, that the future of Edinburgh’s world-famous Hogmanay celebrations would be put at risk if a clampdown is ordered on the “commercialisation” of Princes Street Gardens over the winter.

In not so subtle terms Charlie Wood threatened:

“If you don’t have East Princes Street Gardens, then you don’t have Edinburgh’s Christmas, and you don’t have Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. That’s the bottom line.”

We’re now in an extraordinary position with a commercial company – who have somehow been given such extraordinary control of an entire city centre – and who have taken over large tracts of public land – are effectively in charge of key seasonal events.

This is all predicated on the premise that what is good for the city is an endless stream of more and more visitors, endless growth and the erection of gargantuan constructions to house a Bavarian beer festival.

This week, Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam appearing in front of the Culture and Communities Commitee explained:

“Edinburgh’s Christmas makes a surplus” but “any surplus is a confidential matter”.

The committee was tasked with finding out why all of this happens without any planning permission or drinks license, but let’s ask a different question, what are Christmas and Hogmanany for?

Let’s assume that we do want to have some sort of celebrations. It’s dark and cold and mid-winter festivals are to bring people out to celebrate, come together and to eat and drink together.

Let’s start from the basis that Underbelly’s events have been a disaster and should be shut down immediately. They soak up public money, refuse to be transparent about their profits, cause environmental damage to public parks, and shut down and blight open spaces held in the common good. It’s entirely the city council’s fault that this has been allowed to happen but it needs shut down now.

Here’s some ground rules for what should replace it:

  1. We’re in the midst of a climate emergency – that should be the basis and guide to all public planning and large-scale events.
  2. The local communities of Edinburgh should be considered and consulted about large-scale events and their views should be respected, not asked then ignored. Public consultation should take the form of assembles where people can openly voice their concerns and views. Allied to this we need to map the power and ask how one company was allowed to develop such a monopoly on events?
  3. Local businesses should benefit from city centre events, not be undermined by them
  4. Public spaces should not be commodified, shut off and damaged. People have the right to walk the streets, view their own city and enter their own public parks without charge. This is a right.
  5. Festivals should have some cultural context. Scotland’s wealth of food and drink should be utilised. It’s bizarre for Edinburgh to be hosting a German-themed festival.
  6. In deep winter we want song and story. There is a long tradition of this and it is responding to a deep need. That should be the basis of any festival. This could be an opportunity to show some solidarity with people who are homeless, hungry or vulnerable.
  7. We need to move away from the idea that without these ‘entrepreneurs’ nothing would happen. It’s not a binary choice between Underbelly’s vast events and Edinburgh as a bankrupt culturally bereft city.
  8. There are dozens of artists, musicians and event organisers who would contribute to appropriate-scaled events across the city. Let’s scale it back, let the city breath and create culturally meaningful celebration.
  9. Scotland gave the world Hogmanay and “Auld Lang Syne”, now we need to reclaim it and delve into the rich lore of tradition which it comes from.
  10. Let’s re-imagine the city as a sustainable place for people to live in, one of social justice and equality, not just a space for consumption and profit.

If you had your say – if you had your city back – what would you like Christmas and Hogmanay to look and feel like?

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