The Germans and the Weihnachtsmarkt

The Weihnachtsmarkt – Intelligent Balance between Public and Private Celebration

Christmas market in Nuremberg, Bavaria   © picture-alliance / Bildagentur HuberChristmas is the time when people retreat into the family bunker, emerging dazed, over-fed and half-crazed with boredom, at the end of the holiday. That at least is my version. Some people of course, enjoy it.

But we should all be grateful to the Germans who have taught the British and other Europeans how to keep your sanity over the holidays, how to avoid the claustrophobia of those days locked away with slow-thinking relatives and over-excited children. Because the Germans invented the Christmas market, the Weihnachtsmarkt, and in doing so created an intelligent balance between public and private celebration.

© Gabi Schoenemann/www.pixelio.deThe Weihnachtsmarkt is truly remarkable, pagan event: the stalls have a few glittering angels and carved Wise Men but for the most part you would miss entirely the religious significance of the holiday. Instead hundreds of electric bulbs scoop out the darkness of ancient German market Squares as if the stall-holders were worshipping the ancient god of Light, Energy wastage and Global Warming. That of course is the point: to give people a feeling of warm solidarity, a pleasant sense of togetherness, before the compulsory survival test of the actual Christmas days. And since companies are cancelling their Christmas office parties, the markets are one of the few remaining places where one can get publicly drunk with a good conscience.

In love with the Weihnachtsmarkt

Christmas market, Cologne Cathedral © picture-alliance / Bildagentur Huber The Glühwein courses through the blood stream as quickly as Michael Schumacher used to take the curves on the Nürburgring. Whroosh! So no wonder the British have fallen in love with the Weihnachtsmarkt. In this Recession Christmas, it has become the prime German export. Dentists in Los Angeles are thinking twice this year about buying a Porsche; bankers are too nervous about keeping their jobs to spend money on a new BMW. But the Weihnachtsmarkt, yes, that is a German product we can indulge in. This year Cologne has set up a market directly on the Thames embankment, opposite Big Ben in London. Others are selling their Glühwein in such unlikely places as Birmingham and Leeds.

Why is this? It cannot be just the Glühwein – which, if truth be told, gives the most terrible migraines – and it cannot really be the goods on sale. No, it is simply this: Britain, like many other West European countries, has lost the sense of an authentic Christmas. Its supermarkets are open round-the-clock even on Christmas day. The fir tree has largely been replaced by a plastic invention with in-built lights (so much more practical!). The children are obsessed with electronic games; once unpacked, they retreat to their bedrooms to text message their friends about how their foolish parents yet again bought the wrong version of “Combat”, or whatever violent computer game is currently in fashion. Increasingly it is more about credit cards than Christmas cards. And then of course there are those long days of enforced captivity with this family, cooking meal after meal, like a suburban version of the jungle camp.

Made in Germany

But the Germans understand how to keep the holiday as it used to be. In fact they virtually invented Christmas. After all, it was a German, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg Gotha who first introduced Christmas trees into British culture. He was a great singer too and used to belt out “Oh, Tannenbaum, wie grün sind deine Blätter” to the Royal Family gathered in Balmoral castle. Albert and the German invasion of Victorian households also brought the practice of giving presents, holly and mistletoe. Christmas is Made in Germany. There is an old English verse: “The children of Nuremberg take pleasure in making / what the children of England take pleasure in breaking.” So, now the British have to come to Germany in search of that lost slice of the 19th century when Britain was both greater and cozier.

At first – at the Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg or any of a dozen Billigflieger destinations – it seems as if the Germans have stayed true to their roots. A giant fir tree in the main square (now seen as a fire hazard by most British local councils), young children singing “Silent Night” (choirs are regarded as paedophile hunting grounds in Britain and are thus dying out) and everywhere the smell of cinnamon, orange, grilling sausages and alcohol; the seasonal perfume.

Cheerful self-delusion

Now it could just be that Christmas markets are a mere simulation; a device designed to loosen the purses of reluctant consumers or attract gullible tourists. If they looked more closely at the products on sale they would see that there is not much authentically German. German craftsmanship has long since fallen to globalisation. That “traditional” porcelain doll with blonde locks and big blue eyes? Made in China. That amber bracelet? Imported from Poland. The wooden planes and trains (disliked by children, but admired by adults)? Produced in Slovak workshops. The German Christmas, as they say in management jargon, has been out-sourced. After a few glasses of Glühwein, the British Christmas-nostalgics notice that their Glühwein comes from Chateau Aldi and the only Germans daring to drink it are the local alcoholics who are just as likely to knock back paraffin.
But it doesn’t matter in the end. This is a time of celebration – and cheerful self-delusion.

Despite everything, the Typisch Deutsch column wishes its readers a happy Christmas. And, as they say in German, a good slide into the new year – just be careful you don’t fall too hard.
Roger Boyes
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper “The Times”. He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column “My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.

Photo „Auslage Weihnachtsmarkt“ © Gabi Schoenemann / PIXELIO

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