Cities try to return to traditional stalls as critics say artisan gifts and wooden toys are being edged out by food and mulled wine
With their artisanal stalls selling wooden toys, vendors offering mulled wine from wooden huts and pine tree shelters, Christmas markets offer respite from the hectic festive schedules, a nostalgic throwback to simpler times. And they’re booming; not just in German-speaking countries, where there are now more than 3,700 markets a year, but also in Britain, where they have become annual institutions in Edinburgh, Birmingham and London.
But a number of purists are complaining that German Christmas markets are no longer what they used to be. Supposedly handmade gifts such as wooden stars, nutcrackers and incense-smoking Räuchermännchen are increasingly mass-produced, wholesome produce is being edged out by fatty foods and tacky fairground rides are becoming more prevalent.
Even the vice-president of the Bundestag, CSU politician Johannes Singhammer, has joined the critics. Christmas markets are turning into “an extension of Oktoberfest”, he said: “Yes to markets, but no to funfairs!”
Hamburg bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke told tabloid Bild last week that Christmas markets “made people feel something special. Only Christmas and advent can do that. That’s why big fairground rides don’t belong on these markets”.
Traditionally, Christmas markets in Germany don’t open until after Totensonntag, a Lutheran religious holiday to commemorate the dead, which this year fell on 24 November. But for the last few years bishops have been complaining that markets have been starting earlier and earlier.
Gelsenkirchen in the industrial Ruhr area demonstrates this trend. Last year, the city was bombarded with complaints about fairground rides and mulled-wine stalls playing loud techno and Schlager folk songs. “In Germany, Christmas markets are a bit like football”, Gelsenkirchen’s public relations manager Markus Schwadtmann told the Guardian. “Everybody has a bloody opinion about it.”
This year, the city has kicked out some of the food stalls – also known as Fressbuden or “stuff-your-face booths” – and increased the percentage of stalls selling handmade candles, wooden toys and Christmas tree decorations from 15 to 40%. The mulled-wine stalls have to sign a contract stating that they will only play music “with a Christmas ambience”.
Schwadtmann doesn’t try to hide his exasperation with the critics. “It’s easy enough to complain about the food stalls, but they make the money. I know the public likes looking at those wooden toys, but I ask them: have you ever actually bought one of them?”
Finding skilled craftspeople willing to spend night after night in the cold with little chance of turning a profit is increasingly hard, he says. In Gelsenkirchen, they offer discounts or donations as incentives. Smaller Christmas markets usually have to pay them.
A study published by the association of funfair workers this week revealed that the village fetes and small seasonal festivals where funfair workers usually earn their living have shrunk in number by almost a third over the last 10 years. At the same time, visitors to Christmas markets have shot up from 50m to 85m, meaning funfair organisers are increasingly trying to make up for their losses in December – and crowding out smaller artisanal stalls. The average spend per head at German Christmas markets is now €21 (£17.50), of which half is on food.
It’s enough to turn some Germans off their Christmas markets altogether. Comedian Oliver Maria Schmitt is organising the country’s first “anti-Christmas market” this year. “Every Christmas we dress up our beautiful cities with uniform wooden huts to create this absurd favela vibe and give wine-haters an excuse to get pissed on sugary plonk,” he said. “My intention is therefore to make Frankfurt a Christmas market-free zone”. At a series of cabaret nights this weekend, he intends to serve cold mulled wine only.
• This article was amended on 1 December 2013. The original version wrongly referred to Oliver Maria Schmitt as “she”.
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