These are the days of miracle and wonder, Christmas joys and such. Then next month the Cirque du Soleil comes hither, to stretch credulity and extend daylight beyond all knowing. Photographs by Veronique Vial

They say it was conceived in a mystic moment in 1982, in Baie St Paul in Quebec when the aurora borealis hit. And in that circusless terrain was born an idea that has beguiled wherever it has been seen, from Nowhereville to Malibu. It owes something to centuries-old traditions of circus and something else to an impluse that feels as though it started in the Sixties.

The characters, as you see, are fantastical and what they do is fantastic. Beautiful, mystifying and death-defying. There are no animals except human animals. Smooth-muscled myrmidons shinning backwards up Chinese poles, bungee jumpers soaring like birds, Portuguese pocket atlases, a Cuban juggler whose mind seems to be elsewhere. The trapeze artists are silver fish, the Russian acrobats are like slow-moving sculptures. "The trapeze," says Shana Carroll, San Franciscan trapeze artist, "is a metaphor for everything - the pendulum of life, the heartbeat - except when you're doing it. Then it's just the trapeze." Those present at the Royal Albert Hall in the fortnight beginning 5 January will not have to listen to philosophising but they won't feel it's just the trapeze either. Michael Church