Smiles shine at German Christmas markets, but budgets are tight

NUREMBERG, Germany – Nativity scenes carved from wood, ornaments, candles, children’s toys, gingerbread in myriad shapes, sausages and mulled wine drunk in painted glass mugs.

Few places in Germany feel as Christmassy at this time of year as Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, one of the oldest and most traditional Christmas markets in the country.

After the Covid pandemic stole two holiday seasons, the red and white canopied stalls, the rich and spicy smells of treats and the joy enhanced by mulled wine are once again luring Nuremberg residents and tourists to a central square in the city. According to city historians, the market has formed annually since at least 1628 (with interruptions for the pandemic and several years immediately after World War II).

“It’s not really a normal Christmas without the market,” said Ursula Koebl, 73, a local who claims she never missed the market until 2020, when it was first closed to prevent the spread of Covid.

But even before this market closes at 2pm on Christmas Eve – as tradition dictates – vendors are predicting they won’t do as well as they did in 2019. And for the first time in modern history, more than a dozen vendors gave up their coveted spots because of high costs and lack of staff, leaving gaps in the stall lineup that looked like missing teeth in an otherwise cheerful smile.

Germany’s around 500 Christmas markets, which have long been an integral part of the social calendar, have regained importance as weathervanes of the national mood. Many of them are reopening without Covid restrictions, but until the opening at the end of November it remained uncertain whether the economic situation and a looming energy crisis would spoil the mood.

Cities and towns across Germany have been blacked out due to new energy-saving regulations that ban outdoor lighting on advertisements, public buildings and even landmarks. Amid the cuts, the markets – small temporary villages made of fabric, wood and (energy-efficient LED) strings of lights – face the challenge of making trade thrive. The first signs point to a success, with reservations: while less is being spent at the stands, the rush is as large and enthusiastic as ever.

“Many of us missed this market,” said Nuremberg’s Lord Mayor Marcus König. “It’s just balm for our battered souls after two and a half years of the pandemic, during which there was very little cultural life.”

The coronavirus has had a negative impact on the city’s coffers, which rely on the market, tourism and business travelers who come to the city for trade shows and conventions, he said. König explained and added: “The Christkindlesmarkt is part of Nuremberg’s DNA.”

In 2019, the market had 2.2 million visitors who brought in an estimated €180 million, about US$191 million. The catch is likely to be smaller this year. But despite the fact that the traditional live music stage was canceled this Christmas, the market was well attended by a mix of enthusiastic Nurembergers and tourists, mainly other Germans and Americans.

“We’ve seen that after the Covid-enforced break, people are keen to get back out there and meet in groups,” said Patrick Arens, vice-president of a trade association that represents vendors at Christmas markets across Germany. Mr. Arens runs a mulled wine stand at the Christmas market in Dortmund.

Woman. Köbl, who was out with friends, happily agreed. “Even when it’s that cold, you come out and mingle and forget about cold feet,” she said. She noted that she plans to have at least one glass of mulled wine to warm you up, although the price has gone up from €3.50 in 2019 to €4.

Kurt Leithner, 80, who helps his daughter run a stall selling dollhouse furniture, said: “I notice that people have changed how and what they buy.” Where customers used to pay 30 euros for a carefully crafted dollhouse wardrobe today they tend to rummage through smaller items such as cast-iron typewriters or lamps that cost less than 5 euros. “There are enough people here, it’s just become more economical,” he said.

“You always need mulled wine and sausage,” says Ingrid Kiel, who helps out with her husband at a stand with wooden jewelry. Pointing to intricately designed nativity scenes that can fetch nearly €1,000 for discerning customers (most stores in the market accept credit and debit cards), she said: “But you don’t actually need that stuff to live.”

Two-thirds of Germans told pollsters at consultancy McKinsey that they expect inflation to push up consumer goods prices, and nearly 60 percent said rising prices are their main concern right now. More than half – 53 percent – said they plan to save by buying fewer Christmas gifts, the survey found, and a minority – 13 percent – said they would forget about gifts altogether.

But the rising cost of living does not diminish the joy of being together, exchanging news and gossip and normal life for many Nurembergers.

Despite the power crisis caused by Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Mr König and other city officials have decided not to reduce this year’s celebrations – which is not the case for all Christmas markets in Germany – and the opening times to 10am to 9pm to leave. The city has used LED lighting for years, he said, and outdoor heating has been largely banned since 2008.

A set of rules give the Nuremberg market an old-fashioned vibe. For example, at the Hauptmarkt no records will be played, and no items will be sold that were made outside the Nuremberg region (the city admits some leniency on this point). Vendors must apply for a spot in February. The city’s waiting list is usually in the three-digit range. (Because vendors are carefully selected based on the goods they sell to keep a balance, none of the gaps on the list could be filled at the last minute this year.) There has been a separate children’s Christmas market since 1999, with lower counters and an elaborate one Carousel.

According to Marco von Dobschütz-Dietl, who runs the market, 20 providers canceled this year due to high costs, staff shortages and fears of corona, a first in the history of the modern market.

Klaus Schrödel, 59, has been a constant on the market for three decades and sells traditional plums, lucky figures made of thin wire and plums. Like many Nurembergers who run a stand on the square for four to five weeks, he sees the market as his hobby. He and his wife spend the year preparing the odd little souvenir and they take time off from their regular job to work at the market in December.

“It’s a hobby for me; others travel,” he said. Because his product costs less than 10 euros, he’s doing well, but the price of the fruit he uses as raw material has doubled, eating into his margin.

A consistent source of revenue, even for more expensive goods, has been American tourists, many of whom visit the market on a river cruise stopover.

On a cold night, Paul Bullock, 50, his wife Carrie and friends from Austin, Texas, stepped straight off the plane and were amazed by the sights and smells. When asked if they were planning any major purchases, they admitted they were willing to be tempted.

“We didn’t plan on buying anything, but I think we’ll find out if we stick to the plan,” he said, laughing.

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