Christmas markets in viral times

C
There’s still something to ho-ho-ho about

A lot of friends have asked me if Christmas in Germany has been cancelled again this year.

At first I thought the holidays were under assault by the deeply concerned and undoubtedly caring folk who have harnessed the power of online mobs to make the internet a kinder and gentler safe space.

Were shock troops from the Diversity & Inclusion politburo launching a War on Christmas?

Is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” a blatant racist dog whistle?

Was “Ho ho ho!” toxic masculinity all along?

I was fully prepared to channel my inner Rex Murphy by launching a scathing prose riposte in favour of common sense, but alas, my mighty pen remains sheathed.

They were just asking if Covid cancelled the famous German Christmas markets for the second year in a row.

The answer is, “Sort of”. 

My favourite market — the festive gathering in front of nearby Charlottenburg Palace — announced its cancellation months ago.

The government has imposed so-called 2G restrictions — only fully vaccinated or recovered people are permitted to enter. All markets must be fenced so access can be strictly controlled, something which would be difficult to do on the broad lawns of the palace, and any stalls outside the fence must be taken down.

Gendarmenmarkt is always an essential Christmas stop

The one at Gendarmenmarkt is always fenced because they charge an entry fee, so that’s still open and as crowded as ever.

This atmospheric square surrounded by 18th Century edifices — the old Konzerthaus, the Französischer Dom, the Deutscher Dom, and the statue of poet Friedrich Schiller — transports the tipsy glühwein drinker to the Prussian glory days of Frederick the Great.

There’s a chill in the air, a scent of woodsmoke hovering around the edges, and a hot grilled bratwurst warming my hand. 

The stewed kale tasted better than it looked. Not much better, but…

But don’t worry if grilled meat dripping with grease isn’t your thing. There are lots of other market options, including grünkohl (a green mush of stewed kale, sometimes served with a different sausage), roasted chestnuts, candied almonds, and more.

Controlling access wasn’t a problem at the other Christmas market we visited this year. 

The only way in to Spandau Citadel — short of a siege

Due to Covid 2G restrictions, Spandau’s annual festive scene was moved from the old town centre to the citadel, a 16th century fortress surrounded by steep rampart walls and a moat. 

There’s only one way in and out short of a prolonged siege, and even Berlin’s strident anti-vax community isn’t normally equipped for that.

I really liked the atmosphere of this one. They set the stage the moment we walked in the gate, where halberd and broadsword bearing guards had been posted in period clothes. Okay, they were nagging people to wear a medical mask even outdoors, but still, the faux-weapons were a nice touch.

Stalls had been spread throughout the massive parade ground, so it never felt crowded even with plenty of visitors milling about on a misty Sunday night.

The citadel never felt crowded even with plenty of visitors

Unlike other markets I’ve visited, these had a rustic ‘Merry Olde Prussia’ feel that fit the citadel setting like a mug of glühwein fits a drinker’s hand.

I’ve seen too many film noir to get lured in by a fortune teller…

We indulged in the usual bratwurst here, too, plus roasted chestnuts, fresh cut fries, and candied grapes (like candied apples, but smaller).

Glühwein is the main attraction — sometimes with an extra shot.

I even heard “Baby It’s Cold Outside” playing from the sound system, a song I thought had been cancelled by the neo-Puritans two years ago. I guess it takes a while for news to reach Old Fritz’s Land der Dichter und Denker.

Traditional crafts are a typical Christmas market attraction

Christmas markets are a wonderful German tradition, and in normal years they bring in winter tourists. But there’s one thing you should be aware of if you visit. A romantic evening for two with a couple glühwein each, some sausages and other seasonal nibbles can easily set you back €60. 

To put it in perspective, that’s double what we’d normally pay for a decent dinner for two in Berlin with beers.

Given the cost, a visit to two Christmas markets is enough ho-ho-ho for one year — at least for me.

Catching a view of the scene from the ramparts

This holiday is always a bit of a downer when you live far from home, friends and a select group of family. 

I guess I could Make Christmas Great Again by bringing back the golden years of Star Wars toys and 45 rpm singles, but somehow I don’t think anyone would indulge my nostalgia for childhood.

You won’t catch me making a yearly appearance at a church just for the midnight mass atmosphere, either. I’d much rather put the Saturn back in Saturnalia with a good old fashioned Roman orgy. 

Unfortunately, Covid put a stop to Roman orgies, too, even in Berlin.

So I’m off to a place that no longer celebrates the festival that marks the birth of JC. It used to in Byzantine times, but the Ottomans had something to say about that. Like so many other highly advanced peoples, they had no patience for Mariah Carey on repeat.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply to Ryan Murdock Cancel reply

  • Even though you rejected the Christian C’mas scenes, I see the craft store in your pic selling numerous nativity items. And I see the Lords Supper pic. You mentioned Mariah Carey being ignored but let me ask what about Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, Andy Williams etc. Are they heard of?

    • Hi Clark,

      I don’t reject Christian Christmas customs. It’s an important part of the culture I grew up in. I just don’t participate in them myself. I don’t profess any belief in a god, and my wife is Japanese. We don’t have kids, so trees and presents just aren’t a thing in our flat. The last time I remember my elderly mother and sister having a Christmas dinner back home was 2012. I tend to take advantage of the holiday downtime to travel instead.

      I see stalls selling traditional decorations at all the German markets I’ve visited over the years. While I’ve never seen anyone buy them there (prices are pretty high), I do see decorations in 70% to 80% of the windows in my neighbourhood.

      I’ve never been a fan of Christmas music, apart from liking some of the songs I heard in church as a kid, but that Mariah Carey one is aural torture (as were her other 80s hits). I prefer Bing Crosby.

      Hope you have a nice holiday.

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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