Who doesn’t love a festive Christmas market? The great British public is going nuts for them this year but I’m not convinced that I share everybody’s enthusiasm.
These days every town and city in Britain seems to have its own winter wonderland and seasonal shopping village based on traditional European markets.
From Birmingham to Belfast, the UK has embraced Christmas markets like never before. But are they any good as a shopping or tourist experience? I’m not entirely sure.
Earlier this week I was in Manchester where the Christmas winter wonderland markets have exploded across the city’s streets, from Albert Square down through St Ann’s Square and beyond towards the Arndale Centre.
There’s a Christmas market trail to guide you through the strung-out market stalls and the Yuletide leisure experiences. The big focal point is the Albert Square where the Christmas Village is presided over by a giant, inflatable Santa Claus which looms over visitors.
Many years ago, Manchester’s Santa was an inflatable, jolly chap who clung precariously to the Town Hall clock tower. We used to guess how many days he’d be up there before he blew down in the winter storms. The annual palaver of sticking him back up again was a joy to behold. Today’s version is static and somewhat characterless, although he hasn’t blown down yet.
But modern Manchester Santa does have one trick up his large red sleeve – he’s so trendy that he’s tweeting Christmas messages throughout the festive season on Twitter.
I found the Manchester Christmas markets too generic and charmless for my taste. They’re a bit of a Euro-pudding experience. The food outlets are dominated by German and Dutch eateries whilst the festive stalls sell gifts that could be from anywhere in Europe. ‘Euro-tat’ as my Danish cousin, Bettina, calls it.
And that’s my main bug bear. The Manchester market doesn’t exactly have much of its own distinctive character. As a native Mancunian, this feels like it could be anywhere in Britain or Europe. Where are the local delicacies and authentic northern food products? Meat pies and black puddings anyone?
The gloomy, wet weather didn’t help either. Drinking lager in a German Christmas beer garden feels exotic and invigorating but supping cold ale on a rainy day in Manchester standing in large puddles of water isn’t my idea of festive fun.
OK, the Christmas lights twinkle and raise the spirits on a dreary winter evening, but the whole market experience seems devoid of character and charm.
I had the same issue with Newcastle upon Tyne’s smaller Christmas market on my doorstep. Once again, the market comprised largely generic stalls selling the ubiquitous Christmas reindeers, continental-style Santas, craft jewellery and trinkets. Sure, it’s small and cute whilst its location under Grey’s Monument is cool, but it didn’t completely work for me.
If you like your food served up sizzling hot from huge vats and giant-sized cooking platters, this is the place for you. Again, my problem is with the generic European food, from paella and hog roasts to the ubiquitous German sausages and bratwurst. And then there’s the dreadful mulled wine… which is best left unmentioned.
Newcastle also has the dubious honour of having one of the shortest lasting Christmas markets, closing a full two weeks before Yule, probably so it can move on to another town.
Rather more impressive is the Christkindelmarkt in Leeds, one of the longest established Christmas Markets in the UK. Based around the city’s Millennium Square it boasts 40 chalet huts selling seasonal gifts and crafts.
The Alp Chalet Bavarian eatery in Leeds provides a meeting place to enjoy authentic German food, but since when did I want to eat Stollen and gingerbread in Leeds rather than Dresden?
Bath is another of the big British Christmas markets – the city centre has been transformed into a “magical shoppers’ paradise” with over 170 chalets lining the streets surrounding the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey.
OK, it’s a lovely setting but perhaps a Roman Saturnalia, the pagan winter solstice festival, would have made for a more distinctive and well-suited local theme?
On the other side of the country 250,000 revellers travel to Lincoln’s German-inspired Christmas market every year.
Despite the heavy Germanic theme, at least this market does boast plenty of local foods including plum bread and Lincolnshire Poacher cheese. Now that’s more like it.
But, it’s unclear to me why we need a little bit of Germany in the UK. Isn’t it easier to take a cheap flight to Dusseldorf, Frankfurt or Berlin to enjoy the real thing? And what’s wrong with celebrating Britain’s own Christmas traditions?
Who’s for a Dickensian Christmas market selling quail, geese, figgy pudding and sugar-coated plums? This could be washed down with Victorian traditional wassail punch, designed to warm the body parts that cold German beers never reach.
Germany’s Christmas markets
No prizes for guessing that my favourite Christmas German markets aren’t in the UK but in Germany!
Germany’s markets are popular with tourists because they are charming, authentic and have a long tradition and history. They have a great vibe and buzzing atmosphere which feels really Christmassy. Most British markets simply can’t compete.
One of the most famous is the Christkindlesmarkt in the medieval city of Nuremberg which dates back to 1628 and is held in the Hauptmarkt square. There are mostly handcrafted goods on sale and mass-produced items are not allowed.
There’s a strong emphasis on local food and drink including spicy grilled sausages, Nuremberg gingerbread and strange desserts in the shape of small people made from dried prunes.
Dresden has hosted a Christmas festival since the 1430s and it’s one of my favourites, perhaps because it was the first authentic German market I visited. Its Christmas Striezelmarkt has preserved its distinctive character down the centuries.
Dresden is also the place for Stollen cake – also known as “Striezel” in Middle High German. Every year, the traditional “Stollen festival” celebrates this German delicacy with the ceremonial cutting of the first slice of the giant cake and the Stollen procession through the Baroque Old Town. What a great treat!
There’s a real charm to the Dresden Christmas market with other engaging highlights including the world’s tallest Nutcracker and Christmas pyramid, a fairytale house and puppet theatre.
The Dresden market stalls have some wonderful traditional crafts including miniature pyramids, Räuchermänner (‘smoking men’) and small figurines. Look out for the “Pflaumentoffel”, traditional Dresden good-luck charms, made of dried plums, representing the young boys who once cleaned the chimneys.
I remember the gorgeous smell of the Christmas Market in Dresden with herbal aromas, pines and the roasting nuts, topped with the smokey fumes from the ‘smoking men’ figurines.
These nutcracker-style figures have an internal chamber for a ‘cone’ of incense which sends waves of smoke from the top of the figure’s head. German friends bought me a figure and my brightly coloured soldier comes out every Christmas with a puff of smoke, much to the family’s amusement.
Another of Germany’s best-loved markets is in Cologne where the cathedral provides the stunning setting for the ‘Am Dom’ winter market in the main square with its towering Christmas tree.
Berlin also celebrates Christmas in style with markets which feature jugglers, acrobats, fire artists, dance troupes and puppeteers. There are even medieval-style bakeries where you can peek over the shoulder of the bakers preparing bread in the old style. At nearby taverns, you can drink steaming mead in a clay jug, an ideal winter warmer.
Handicrafts are high quality ranging from hand-carved cribs and mouth-blown glassware to wood carved figurines and replicas of historical steam engines. The bland gifts at most British markets can’t compete on the same level.
Why don’t the British Christmas markets reinvent themselves? They could be so much better and more distinctive – and provide a really authentic tourist experience.
Perhaps it’s easy to be complacent if you’re selling mass-produced bric-a-brac and tat? After all, lots of people love Britain’s new Christmas markets.
Maybe I’m being a kill-joy, a modern Scrooge railing at the boring British markets, shouting ‘humbug’ and refusing to join the seasonal fun?
What I’d really like to see are some British Christmas markets with a sense of creativity, tradition and distinctive fare. Is it too much to ask to dare to be different?