In a normal year, the centre of Glastonbury would be bustling at this time of year, with shoppers visiting the many emporia of alternative retail culture in the town. This year, it has been very different – because of social distancing rules, there has been no Frost Fayre, and far fewer visitors than usual for the Winter Solstice. Nevertheless, the shopkeepers have done a wonderful job of decorating their windows, in defiantly bright contrast to a season which has seemed even darker than usual this year. I would like to share with you a walk, in pictures, down the High Street to the Market Place and along Magdalene Street, after dark. For me, the lit windows are like magic lanterns or stained glass, glowing with light and colour, with images and symbols which bring out different aspects of the seasonal festivals.
Let’s start on the High Street. This is one of my favourite shops, with its Art Deco window panels and kaleidoscopic lanterns. The big lump in the middle of the display is myrrh – one of the three gifts traditionally brought to the Christ child in the manger in Bethlehem, by the wise men who came from the east. There is something of the souk about this shop, and the owner always keeps an incense burner alight outside the door, sending exotic fragrances out into the Somerset town.
Just across the road, I like the whimsy of a gift shop wrapped up like a present, picking up on the tradition of exchanging gifts which has been part of midwinter celebrations for millennia. I don’t envy them fixing those lights up on the roof! I know it’s a shop which sells lovely things, and it looks very inviting, but this evening I’m photographing, not shopping, so I keep walking.
This shop has been recently refurbished, and the gilding of the lettering catches the light (gold, frankincense, myrrh). This shop sells mostly Indian items, and its window display is full of little lights, hinting at Diwali. The top floor, which I must admit I have never noticed in daylight, has a rainbow of lanterns suspended from the ceiling. I think they go very well with the municipal Christmas tree on the front of the shop.
The Green Man is a significant folkloric and pagan symbol, and at this season of evergreens he is everywhere in Glastonbury. This is a particularly fine example, framed by greenery and bringing a touch of the wildwood to the high street.
More Green Men here too, who have been joined by Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god. The interweaving of traditions and beliefs is a major feature of Glastonbury, and is reflected in the range of merchandise which shops offer to modern-day pilgrims and visitors. It is said that over 70 religions and beliefs are represented in the town, making Glastonbury perhaps one of the most spiritually diverse places on earth.
But amid all the paraphernalia of spirituality, people’s physical needs are catered for too, and the baker’s shop has a cornucopia of seasonal goodies in the window. The mince pies look delicious, and I don’t even like mince pies! Let’s hope the Scandi-style elves in the display don’t eat them all…
Across the road, one of Glastonbury’s best-known shops covers all the bases for seasonal gift-buying – a witches’ calendar for 2021, a cushion showing moon phases, a Green Man apron, magic spell kits and oracle cards, and a book on the Winter Solstice. There is a tree, with snow-filled baubles, and a wreath with greenery and berries, and also the Tree of Life.
The next window seems quite conventional, for Glastonbury – a Christmas tree and Santa Claus. But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s not exactly the Santa of popular culture – this chap is nearer to the old images of Father Christmas, looking rather as if he’s just come walking out of the forest with an armful of kindling for the Yule fire.
A couple of doors down, we have more trees and another Father Christmas – but again, he isn’t the scarlet-clad figure with the sleigh and the ho-ho-ho. This one is dressed in brown, smiling benevolently amid frosty-white trees, lit with cool whites and blues and populated with cuddly woodland animals. It looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and I’d love to read the whole story.
By way of contrast, the next window has nothing conventional about it at all – there may be a wreath of leaves, but they frame a seated figure of the Buddha, reflected to infinity in a circular mirror, and flanked by a pair of angles who look like they were crafted by Jacob Epstein. Cascades of light and washes of colour create an ephemeral magic.
We have reached the bottom of the high street, and turn left into the Market Place. Here, there’s a clothes line of colourful stockings, strung above a vast selection of crystals. A decorated Christmas tree sits beside geodes and ammonites, which are echoed in the signage above the shop window.
In the toy shop next door, the stunning wooden fairy tale castle which is a permanent fixture has been joined for the season by a couple of Nutcracker figures and a very cute reindeer in a winter wonderland that is all sparkle and ice. The nod to continental Christmas customs is continued in the Nordic bunting across the window.
And so, finally, we come to Magdalene Street, and the last of the lit shops. In a building which is one of only three in Glastonbury to survive from the 15th century, a handsome reindeer follows a trail of shining stars, with the inky-black winter sky above.
Whichever of the midwinter festivals you celebrate, may I send you – despite the particular challenges of this year – peace, love and happiness.
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