A friend from overseas asked me to decode the significance of stuffed giraffes and a pink pony on a stick seen on a video from Glastonbury, so I wrote down a few thoughts, which pedants will observe includes minor inaccuracies, some intentional, others less so, but anyone who has been to the Festival will get the drift:
My Grandmother once went around Ireland on a coach tour, and on the second-to-last day asked the driver, in all earnestness, when they were going to see the Little People. She would have really loved the Glastonbury Festival.
It takes place on a working farm (with heavy clay soil - which is why the conditions sometimes get so extreme, of more later) the weekend after the Summer Solstice, about five miles or so from Glastonbury itself, a small town which tries to exist entirely in a time and space of its own, where it is easier to buy a bottle of faerie water steeped in healing crystals than a pint of milk. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea brought Jesus to Glastonbury, Joseph's staff taking root and growing into a tree known as the Glastonbury Thorn, at the foot of the Tor (a great big hill with a tower on top of it). It is also reputed to be the last resting place of King Arthur, in the mythical, mystical land of Avalon. The town attracts those of a mystical persuasion, and rival groups of Druids have fairly heated arguments about which of them should be in charge of the place. There is a certain Druid, who (as far as I know) still performs a ceremony at the Festival to get it going, while other Druids get cross that this man who they consider a disgrace to the profession gets the gig.
To an extent it has been a victim of its own success, in that the tickets now sell out in minutes, so you need to be fairly organised to get one - this has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of folk who could be described as existing in a spectrum between a bit beyond normally eccentric to truly believing that they come from another dimension (and if they paint themselves with woad and dance to techno hard enough they will some day return), which is a shame, although it does mean that things which are anticipated happening (like the set by the Fleet Foxes which sparked this conversation) are more likely to actually take place than in the days before they put the Great Big Fence up. They put the Great Big Fence up because one year an estimated quarter of a million people jumped over the little fence they had before, and on top of the 120,000 people the place is licensed for it became rather tricky to move about.
Because getting a ticket now involves knowing how to use both an alarm clock and a PC connected to the internet, plus having quite a lot of money available on a specific date of the year, there are a lot fewer stuffed giraffes and pink ponies on sticks than there used to be, and with it a reduction on people balancing on surfboards being borne aloft above the heads of the crowd, beach balls the size of airships being passed around, nudists with placards standing around protesting that they get arrested every time they wander around town centres without any clothes on, and a lot of other stuff that is so completely unexpected that you'd think you were hallucinating, which in the days when mind-expanding substances were traded quite openly was also more likely than now.
The weather can occasionally be absolutely glorious, hot, sunny, just perfect. More often it is grey and miserable, about one year in three the heavens open about three days before it starts and the mud and surface water assumes Biblical proportions once people start sloshing through it. One year the second stage sank and had to be abandoned. I remember seeing Kula Shaker about three or four times that year as most of the acts billed refused to enter the site, anticipating being stuck there forever, so the ones who were there played several times wherever they could get to and wherever there was still electricity.
Another year a storm on the Thursday night brought down a tree which fell across and dammed a river up the hill, emptying the entire contents of the river onto the site. Children were sailing inflatable boats on a lake that had formed on the grass strip between the hardstanding walkway and the food stalls and silly hat shops. I don't think that anyone has ever drowned in the mud and surface water at the Festival, but it wouldn't be stretching credulity too far to imagine that one day it could happen.
When the weather is nice the place is filled with stilt-walkers, unicyclists, performance artists, all wandering about cheering the place up, but when it's muddy all that gets a bit tricky. Some friends run a juggling workshop in the circus fields, and for many years I've had the good fortune to be able to go and help them out. We get kids making their own juggling balls, and then they take them and get shown how to use them.
Glastonbury is about so much more than music, there was one year I went and only saw one band during the entire three days, and didn't feel that I'd missed out on anything. There's theatre, circus, comedy, healing fields, environmental fields, dance tents, tents with speeches by politicians, didgeridoo making workshops, a stone circle, little cafes where people just turn up and play - including one where the bands play using electricity generated by people from the audience taking turns to pedal bicycles. There's also the stage which gets filmed and shown on telly, of course, but that's the only bit about the weekend that's like any other festival I've been to.