Hideous Beauty: Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park

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The Crystal Palace was erected in Hyde Park for the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851. Thirteen thousand exhibitors displayed sculptures, jewellery, ornamental scissors, mechanical escritoires, Colt revolvers, patent freezing machines, and the world’s biggest diamond. ‘There were things beautiful, and things hideous,’ wrote Lord Redesdale in his memoirs, ‘For art at that moment had sunk very low: but the general effect of beauty and airy grace, together with the delicate framework and brilliancy of the whole structure, was indelible.’ Schweppes was awarded the catering commission. The sale of alcohol was prohibited, so visitors drank tea, soda water, lemonade and ginger beer.

The eighth Winter Wonderland carnival and Christmas market opened in Hyde Park on November 21 and runs until January 4. It has a skating rink, an ice bar, a circus, a Bavarian beer hall, 54 rides and attractions, and over twenty bars, cafes, and concession stands. In Angels Christmas Market over 200 stalls draped in evergreen garlands and fairy lights sell decorations, crystal lamps, secret boxes, wooden chess sets, handmade silver jewellery, fudge, instant snow, framed charcoal drawings of the Duchess of Cambridge, wood-carved signs announcing ‘It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,’ and masks of the members of One Direction, Gordon Ramsey, Jordan, and Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat.

Screenshot (860)The concession stands are endless variants on a few themes: Pancake House, Original Bavarian Pretzel Store, The Jolly Hog, The Village Hog, Fresh Crêpes, Savoury Crêpes, Belgian Waffles, Spanish Churros. ‘We didn’t have to wait too long to be served some food but it wasn’t British,’ wrote a senior contributor on Trip Advisor. Half-pint polystyrene cups of mulled wine are £5. An ear of hot buttered corn is £3.50. One litre steins of Bavarian Gold are £10 and require a £5 deposit for the glass. Speakers on the roofs of the huts discharge an endless stream of Christmas music and hits. When a Child is Born, Eye of the Tiger, Summer Loving, Wonderful Christmastime, and the radio edit of Blurred Lines. ‘Wre-eh-eh-ck me,’ mouthed a little girl who trailed past me in the market singing Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. Bands play I Will Survive, Happy, Get Lucky and an acoustic version of Roar.

The work force at Winter Wonderland is enormous; ride operators and attendants, cashiers, bartenders, cooks, runners, litter pickers, concession stand workers, stewards, security guards, musicians, event managers, cleaners, electricians, acrobats, finance assistants, and the photographers who take pictures of people on frozen thrones in the -8 degree Magical Ice Kingdom. Last year 50,000 presents were handed out at Santa’s grotto, where Father Christmas is available for photographs from 10-6 PM. The 60-meter observation wheel is transported on ten trailers and takes seven days to install. On a weekday morning at least forty-five stewards and security guards were on duty. On weekends they’re stationed every few feet in the thick crowds yelling, ‘Please keep left’ into megaphones. A Polish concession worker told me he was in London specifically for Winter Wonderland. Unfailingly cheerful, he works 14-hour shifts six days a week.

Screenshot (859)Zippos Christmas Circus has about 9000 visitors on the weekends. It’s less crowded on weekday afternoons in early December, an audience of mostly parents and bottle wielding infants who occasionally burst into tears. The daytime show began with Cuba’s Tropicana Troupe. ‘The ring master said it’s too cold for Christmas let’s have a summer holiday instead,’ Louis R wrote on a Trip Adviser review of Winter Wonderland he entitled ‘Money Grubbing and not Christmassy,’  ‘The next thing ten topless men came out and started jumping about.’ The strongmen, acrobats, juggler, and tightrope walkers were incredible. Despite a request for silence, people couldn’t help bursting into applause when two tightrope walkers crossed the stage with their brother balanced between them on plank.

In ancient Athens the celebrations of the god Apollo’s May 22 birthday lasted an entire month; a sacrifice was offered at Marathon, citizens hung laurel branches strung with fruits and lyre-shaped pastries over their doors, and a twelve year old boy lead a procession in honour of the Sun and the Hours. In Roman times, mid-winter celebrations commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn. Slaves banqueted with their masters and everyone wore conical caps, the mark of a freedman. A banqueter was appointed Lord of Misrule. The Saturnalia was too popular to cancel, so the birth of Jesus was celebrated on the December 25 birthday of the sun-god Sol Invictus.

Screenshot (862)Today the holiday advertisements devised to make the citizenry weep with emotion debut in early November and the start of the shopping season is officially marked with the Black Friday sales. At night, Winter Wonderland visitors in elf costumes and Father Christmas hats with woollen braids honour the national passion for fancy dress. People queued for wood fired pizzas and children bounced on the Candy Cane Bungees at the Mirror Bar, where an intoxicated man in an elf suit danced wildly to Michael Jackson’s PYT. Periodically he leaned over to be spanked by a woman in the crowd. Patrons sang along to a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody in the Bavarian Great Hall. Swedish House Mafia’s final single Don’t You Worry Child played in the heated bar with a three-tiered nativity scene on the roof. Electronic billboards announced, ‘Smile you are on CCTV.’ People screamed on the pendulum rides and roller coasters. The general effect of beauty and airy grace, together with the delicate framework and brilliancy of the whole structure, was indelible.