Hard as nails: how Germans keep traditional Christmas markets alive

France, Germany, Norway and Romania are all proving their enduring appeal – as proven by bringing in far fewer police than originally planned When the summer sun has disappeared, and the ever-present cold drizzle…

Hard as nails: how Germans keep traditional Christmas markets alive

France, Germany, Norway and Romania are all proving their enduring appeal – as proven by bringing in far fewer police than originally planned

When the summer sun has disappeared, and the ever-present cold drizzle ensures that people flock to get their frostnicks on, it is the biggest winter festival in Europe that leaves the most lasting impression. On Christmas Day, the streets of Germany’s famous Zürich Christmas market are full of shoppers, revellers and festive-happy crowds. On Boxing Day, shoppers flocked to Austria’s market in the Alpine spa town of Salzburg, and on New Year’s Eve, sales in many European cities topped €8bn (£7.3bn).

Festivals are a powerful indicator of the state of the nation, and their attraction has long been attributed to Germany’s unique combination of tradition and modernity. Yet Germany and Austria have also found that replacing winter villages and traditional markets with something more modern, more contemporary and – according to some – a little less noble – has had mixed results.

What’s changed? While contemporary festivals have proved increasingly popular across Europe, many remain heavily policed for antisocial behaviour, such as that caused by drinking in public and aggressive panhandling. In Germany, the Cologne and Bremen Christmas markets have enjoyed improved public safety in recent years, but there have been ongoing police problems with Christmas markets in other locations – recent outbreaks of muggings and drug-taking at Helsinki’s market were just one example.

What works? In each new iteration of a Christmas market, the central question is whether the public can accept or enjoy having its traditional Christmas culture replaced by a new event that bears little or no resemblance to the traditional one. This challenge has proved particularly acute in Germany, where nostalgic feeling remains strong for the traditional Christmas market.

The new calendar of events has put the spotlight on market days, which are more than just days of shopping. This period is often seen as a festival-making event where a sense of community and belonging is promoted, especially on the last Sunday of December.

How does the traditional Christmas market compare with the newer variety? In most respects, the traditional market is retaining most of its traditional value – it is still exclusively associated with Christmas shopping and family reunions. The new modern and more contemporary Christmas market offers shoppers new things and experiences, more competition from e-commerce and the challenge of thinking positively about a future that is becoming less of a holiday season.

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