Solstice

illustration fancy dress

The annual Katoomba Winter Magic Festival creates much excitement – and sometimes controversy. Michel Streich takes a closer look.
First published in BLUME magazine, May 2018

In Katoomba, my hometown in the Blue Mountains just West of Sydney, winter days can be cold. Sydneysiders like to visit Katoomba in winter to get a small taste of frosty weather, and to have a roast dinner and a glass of port in front of a crackling fireplace. In some visitors this stirs hidden, inherited memories of European Christmases. So a handful of local hotels offer celebrations of “Christmas in July” – or “Yulefest” – complete with Christmas trees and tinsel, and carols playing in the background.

Twenty-five years ago, the Katoomba Small Business Association asked the Blue Mountains council to get local artists and performers involved in Yulefest to make it more interesting. The job was given to artist John Ellison, the council’s Cultural Development Coordinator at the time. But John pointed out that locals don’t care about Yulefest because, frankly, it makes no sense for them to play at having a cozy winter weekend when they spend the entire winter hunkered down in their houses, trying to stay warm. For them, he said, ‘it’s just Santa twice a year.’ So instead, he formed a ramshackle committee of businesses and artists, which developed a plan for a seasonal festival that would take place annually near the winter solstice in June. Blue Mountains people would be asked to put on a costume and bring whatever is magical to them into town on festival day. The Winter Magic Festival was born.

The first Winter Magic Festival kicked off in 1994 and established the main street of the town, Katoomba Street, as the heart of the festivities. The street was closed to car traffic, and a stage put up. Two thousand or so locals came to see the spectacle, many of them wearing self-made costumes. Bands played, there was singing and clowning, drummers and dancers, including an Aboriginal dance group. A trapeze artist was hanging from the town’s metal clock arch, which stretches across Katoomba Street. Fire jugglers and belly dancers performed, and music went on into the evening.

The term “magic” in the festival’s name created controversy at first. Church ministers thought that the revellers were sinister occultists. A cheeky festival poster had appeared in town, with a caricature of town councillors huddled around a cauldron and the headline “Attention all Buskers, Wizards, Magicians, Pavement Artists, Performers, Strolling Minstrels, Gypsy Fortune Tellers, Fairies, Witches and Persons of Necromantic Skill”. A few council employees were outraged and disgusted, until the difference between necromancy – foretelling the future by communing with the dead – and necrophilia – having sex with corpses – was shown to them in a dictionary.

Wild rumours were everywhere. When Sydneysiders called the Blue Mountains tourism office the following year, they were told not to visit the devilish festival. Last time, they were warned, “Satanists had slaughtered donkeys at the top of Katoomba Street!” But the people who stayed away missed out. The 1995 festival was magical.

John Ellison spoke on stage to open the event. He wore a long robe and a pointy blue wizard’s hat, complemented by his white beard. The winter sky above was grey and miserable. “The magic, the culture, the art, the creativity,” he said, “are all part of the same thing, and that’s what we are going to use to forge the new vision for the Blue Mountains. So I welcome you all to the festival here today, and let’s participate and really work some powerful magic to lift whatever gloom has been over Katoomba in the past, and let’s turn it into something golden for the future!” Then he waved his wand and recited an ancient blessing connected to the Egyptian sun goddess. “Sa seckem sahu!” But the sunshine spell backfired. Moments later, snow started falling, and kept falling. Before long, people were throwing snowballs. Even the local policemen forgot they had to keep order and had a snow fight with children who were standing on the awning of the art supply shop. The snow got so thick that some people rode their skis down Katoomba Street.

Things have changed since the early days of ‘feral fest’, as people in the more genteel lower mountains used to call it. Winter Magic has become immensely popular with locals and visitors. Katoomba’s schools, sceptical at first, are now enthusiastic participants. For many children, putting on a costume and walking in the huge morning parade is a highlight of the year. Local bands play at many venues in town, including in the churches who have cheered up and thrown open their doors to the festival. Fireworks happen on the roof of the grand Carrington Hotel, enchanting everyone.

But the success of Winter Magic has made managing it more difficult. During the festival, forty to fifty thousand people now pack Katoomba Street. The days of fire breathing acrobats and bands playing on rooftops and shop awnings are gone. You need risk assessments, traffic management, terrorism precautions, evacuation plans. Each Winter Magic Festival is coordinated and run by unpaid volunteers in their spare time, with no help from tourism organisations or the State government. And while the town council fathered Winter Magic, it wasn’t around much during its upbringing. People get involved because of their deep love for the town and for Winter Magic. Running the festival is a gruelling task that brings no acknowledgement or accolades. This time around, some of the organisers – who had successfully pulled off previous Winter Magic Festivals – became nervous about safety obligations and fearful of court cases. An inquest into an accident at the Sydney Vivid Festival contributed to their worries. A drunk tourist who couldn’t swim had drowned in Sydney Harbour one night, and there had been uncertainties in the safety and rescue procedures. The Winter Magic committee commissioned its own “Evaluation options” report which, as those kinds of reports do, presented them with a whole bouquet of concerns. Disagreements among the nine committee members about what to do next became fierce. Deadlines were missed, and soon time was running out for the 2018 festival. The committee took a vote and decided to look for solutions without time pressure. The 25th Winter Magic Festival was cancelled in February.

The cancellation caused much disappointment – and some anger – with the locals. As in the festival’s early days, wild rumours were flying. And while a newly elected, fresh committee is working to put the Winter Magic Festival back on its feet for next year, and the town council has become interested again, there are also suggestions that the festival should be handed over to professionals, including a commercial event management business.

Recent newspaper articles have pointed out that the last Winter Magic Festival added $2.4 million to the local economy. But measuring the value of something in the money it brings does not feel right in Katoomba. When I moved here from Sydney eight years ago, I was happy to leave behind the glitzy, money-obsessed city. Within a short time, I met more artists in Katoomba than I had in ten years in Sydney. This town is full of inventive, spirited and imaginative people. Up here, a kilometre in the air above Sydney, a person is not measured by their bank account, their house or car. It is a pleasure to live – and work – in Katoomba.

I felt that Winter Magic is the perfect expression of what is special about this town – the combination of its quirky, intelligent and playful inhabitants and its surrounding nature, including the dramatic weather. And Winter Magic reminded me of winter festivities in my country of birth, Germany, and other places in Europe. Christmas and New Year are closely connected to the winter solstice. Christmas was, after all, not celebrated during the first four centuries of Christianity, and was grafted onto existing solstice celebrations. The 25th of December was the birthday of the Roman god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, before it was turned into Jesus’s birthday. And Odin’s Wild Hunt through the sky and the hairy Wild Man rattling his chains became furry-collared Santa on his flying sleigh with bells, pulled by reindeers like Donner and Blitzen (the German words for thunder and lightning). There was wassailing, a Christmas tradition where costumed, singing mobs came to rich people’s doors and demanded the best food and drink in the house – a bit like trick-or-treating for tipsy adults. And you have the carnival traditions, such as the sombre Carnival of Venice with its intricate costumes, or the German version, where for a while “His Madness” Prince Karneval rules towns taken over by costumed fools.

It seems that twenty-five years ago, something ancient was unearthed from underneath the silly “Christmas in July”. The winter solstice festivities are a solid part of Katoomba’s folklore now. From the start, they were not about businesses. The local businesses, especially the hotels, pubs and cafés, are essential to it. But Winter Magic is about Mountains folk taking over their town for one day. On this day, Katoomba celebrates itself.

The Winter Magic Festival is cancelled for this year. But solstice celebrations are happening regardless. I hearthat on the day, there will be music in some of the venues in town. There will be dancing and performances in the park in front of the Carrington Hotel, and fireworks at night. And there will be the boisterous, costumed people of Katoomba, having a good time in the town that is theirs for a day. Maybe some of them will turn up as buskers, wizards or pavement artists, performers, strolling minstrels or fairies. And maybe some of them will misbehave, just a little. I certainly will be at the top of Katoomba Street, wearing a crazy hat and a weird coat, joining the hurly-burly of the cancelled festival. Maybe some magic will happen. I think it will. Sa seckem sahu!