BERLIN — Glühwein, Bratwurst and ice-skating under atmospheric lights at a winter wonderland somewhere in Germany.
Not this year.
Further nationwide lockdown measures through November as a response to soaring coronavirus rates mean that most of Germany’s 3,000 Christmas markets face cancellation, a double blow to local economies and national morale. The roughly 160 million visits to such markets annually generate revenue of close to €3 billion, but it’s not just about cash in a country wedded to its traditions of mulled wine and grilled sausage against a setting of icy temperatures and festive music.
“For Germany, the Christmas market represents a deep cultural tradition,” said Albert Ritter, president of the German Showmen’s Association, which represents many of the stallholders. A blanket cancellation would “be very sad for the psyche of the people — for our soul,” he said.
Usually, Christmas markets start up in mid-November and run right through December. And there is still hope that outdoor entertainment, perhaps with temperature scanning at entrances, more distance between booths and liberal use of hand disinfectant, could allow them to proceed in December in some limited cases. The decisions about whether markets will go ahead lie ultimately with municipalities, though they are heavily prompted by restrictions introduced by Germany’s federal states.
There’s plenty of bad news already. Berlin has cancelled the market at Gendarmenmarkt, an iconic setting in the heart of the city not far from government ministries, while the privately managed event in Cologne has been scrapped. Frankfurt’s annual bash has been canceled too as have the planned markets in Erfurt, Rostock and Nuremberg’s world-famous Christkindlesmarkt.
However, the Christmas market in Leipzig may still continue, but without the staples of Glühwein and Bratwurst, a decision Ritter said he’ll fight in the courts.
An hour away in Dresden, things are looking tight for December. René Krause, who runs a 70-year-old family bakery churning out up to 130,000 stollen cakes each year, is already coming to terms with the cancellation of the annual Dresdner Stollenfest which usually attracts 60,000. The city is home to Germany’s oldest market, which has run since 1434, but that could also be under threat. “Dresden without its Christmas markets is unthinkable, really unthinkable,” said Krause.
Dresden, like most other local authorities, is holding firm on its final decision. The uncertainty over whether Christmas markets will take place — and if so, whether people will feel safe enough to visit — is hard on retailers. “Imagine not having received a salary since December last year. And whether you get your salary now depends on the latest news,” Ritter said.
Ingo Lang has been selling Bratwurst at the Chemnitz Christmas market — which, at present, is going ahead — for 15 years and says the takings keep his company running to the following spring. “The Christmas market is very important for us,” he said, adding that a market without sausages and wine is “nonsense.”
While larger cities host annual Christmas markets in packed city squares, smaller towns across the country depend on the annual flow of tourists to make ends meet.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber — a medieval town in northern Bavaria, with a population of just 11,000 — attracts 1.9 million visitors every year. As the home of Germany’s famed Christmas decoration company Käthe Wohlfahrt and Germany’s Christmas museum, it relies heavily on international tourism, particularly during the advent season.
In 2019, nearly half of the 55,250 overnight stays in December were foreign tourists and the tourism industry accounts for €140 million a year, a third of the town’s overall GDP. A third of those tourist euros come in during the December advent season, according to Robert Nehr, who runs press and communications for the Rothenburg Tourismus Service.
This year, Nehr estimates a 60 to 65 percent loss in income.
“It’s pretty devastating,” said Nehr, who was at least optimistic that more German visitors would be willing to visit this year. “It’s a very interesting paradox,” but it isn’t expected to make up for the lost revenue.
The town is extending the number of days the market runs, in the hopes of reducing a concentration of visitors. Plans are in place to close food stands if infection rates get too high to avoid lingering crowds.
Other small towns usually hold a Christmas market for just one weekend. Querfurt in Saxony-Anhalt, an hour’s drive west from Leipzig, receives roughly 10,000 visitors for its Querfurter Weihnachtszauber on the grounds of the city’s famed castle, the biggest in central Germany.
It’s still planning to hold a market, with an emphasis on “planning,” said the city’s EU affairs contact Daniela Steinicke. She described the planned restrictions as “significant,” including a one-way direction of travel, barriers in front of food stands, enhanced dishwashing regulations and more space between booths.
“The pandemic is a catastrophe for retailers, be they groceries, artisans or showmen. Many of them have earned next to nothing in the whole year,” Steinicke explained. Querfurt already had to cancel its vineyard festival and Fall farmers’ market.
“We have very similar problems here in the country as in the big metropolises,” said Steinicke. “Everything on a smaller scale, but no less dramatic for the economy.”