Germany’s most successful recent export may be not a sleek new luxury saloon car or top of the line dishwasher, but something more down-to-earth: the Christmas market.
German-themed markets have steamed through Europe and beyond, leaving in their wake the debris of abandoned indigenous traditions and the lingering scent of gingerbread and mulled wine.
In Britain, clusters of Alpine-ish huts selling wooden toys, wurst and warm booze have become regular fixtures in London and other cities from Birmingham to Belfast.
“Frohe Weihnacht!” reads the glazed scrawl on a gingerbread morsel from one of the market’s websites — nary a sign of the more location-specific “Merry Christmas!”
Britain’s tabloid newspapers would surely be scrambling for puns rhyming with “huns” if only half their readers didn’t no doubt love this change from their standard Christmas fare.
Whereas previously a typical British festive season meant a department store splurge, a quick squeeze on “Santa’s” knee and a bout of indigestion, now you can be transported to a sweet-smelling seasonal wonderland after only a dawdle down to the town square.
In France, which normally celebrates Christmas in a downplayed, sophisticated sort of way, a Christmas market has bivouacked in the very center of the capital, on the Champs-Élysées.
“Yuk!” tweets the commentator on all things French Agnès Poirier of the tinsel-draped emplacement.
“The plague of pseudo-Christmas markets is spreading all over Europe.”
In the United States, Thanksgiving had better watch out as “Christkindlmarkts” pop up everywhere from Denver to Tomball, Texas, via Chicago.
For Americans, it may soon be not so much a matter of brushing up on “Away in a Manger” as learning “O Tannenbaum” from scratch.
Christmas-market world tour
For the Christmas market-loving tourist, a world tour beckons.
Implicit in the spread of the phenomenon is the idea that Germany “does” Christmas with peerless authenticity.
Yet, according to the British newspaper the Guardian, there may be something rotten in the state of the German Christmas market itself.
Travelers to the country expecting to find the crystalline essence of Christmas there may be disappointed.
Traditionalists have accused Germany’s more than 3,700 Christmas markets of descending into “funfairs.”
The quaint “handmade” wooden stars and angels on sale as gifts, they charge, are increasingly mass-produced in Asia.
Sugary snacks are said to be edging out more wholesome seasonal staples.
Mulled wine stalls prefer to play techno rather than Christmas carols, the critics charge, while the shrieks from funfair rides threaten to drown out the markets’ usual mellow hubbub.
And, finally, the markets are shamefully opening earlier every year to cram in yet more shopping.
In its very bauble-bedecked heart, the Christmas market as refuge from crass modern commercialism appears to be falling victim to … crass modern commercialism.
Fearing the total dissipation of the Christmas spirit, the market’s defenders are fighting back.
Munich is forcing Fressbuden (“stuff your face”) stalls out and upping the percentage of vendors selling Christmassy toys.
Mulled wine vendors are being made to sign contracts stating they’ll only play appropriately festive music.
In Frankfurt, comedian Oliver Maria Schmitt, sick of Germany’s “beautiful cities” being dressed up with “uniform wooden huts” and “wine-haters [being given] an excuse to get pissed on sugary plonk,” wants to turn the city into the first “Christmas market-free zone.”
For their part, the market organizers report how hard it is to find people willing to staff stalls through the bitter cold night, proffering only attractive wooden objects that people love to look at but hardly ever buy.
Some smaller German markets are even paying artisans to stand around looking traditional, the Guardian reports.
The stage seems set for a German seasonal set-to — but could the controversy spread to Christmas market-loving countries beyond?
Do you seek out Christmas markets on your travels? Do they convey the true Christmas spirit? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
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