Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/36 posted by hidden europe on

It is the season for good cheer. Or so they say. And this Advent we have caught a dash of Christmas spirit in several different countries across Europe. Mulled wine comes with a variety of accents, sometimes with hints of cinnamon and citrus, elsewhere more honey and black pepper. It has been fun to wander through Christmas markets from Strasbourg to Southwark, from Brussels to Berlin, and it is also an instructive lesson in globalisation.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

It is the season for good cheer. Or so they say. And this Advent we have caught a dash of Christmas spirit in several different countries across Europe. Mulled wine comes with a variety of accents, sometimes with hints of cinnamon and citrus, elsewhere more honey and black pepper. It has been fun to wander through Christmas markets from Strasbourg to Southwark, from Brussels to Berlin, and it is also an instructive lesson in globalisation. There is an unhappy sameness about the major Christmas markets, most particularly those geared primarily to visitors and tourists rather than locals. The factory-produced German sausages (bratwurst) taste much the same everywhere. It is only the price that varies - and in Christmas markets in England that price tag is evidently twice as high as anywhere else in Europe.

Christmas markets: origins

In late-mediaeval central Europe, Christmas markets were given a kick-start by a dispensation that permitted out-of-town traders, who might not normally have a licence, to sell food, drink and religious goods during Advent. There were all sorts of ifs and buts of course. In many communities such seasonal trading was restricted to specific hours and even particular places - usually a single square, often to the west of the Parish Church (actually a good spot, as it was well placed to catch folk as they emerged from their devotions). These were small markets that oozed local flavour, sold locally made cribs and candles and offered home-made refreshments. Not a factory bratwurst in sight.

Various small towns in the southern half of eastern Germany stake their claim to having invented the Christmas market. Yet even that region has succumbed to modern identikit Christmas markets. But for those prepared to venture off the beaten path, or stop off in smaller towns, there are still plenty of Christmas markets that hold true to old traditions.

Local versus global

Follow the River Spree upstream from Berlin and you will eventually come to Bautzen, the centre of Sorbian life, language and culture where the Christmas market dates back to 1384 (thus pre-dating nearby Dresden which has a huge and very commercial Christmas market much favoured by visitors from afar). The Bautzen market is the very essence of the local. And the same is true of the little Christmas market in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, south-west of Berlin and less than an hour by train from the German capital. We marked the Fourth Sunday of Advent by walking the streets of Lutherstadt Wittenberg, and were as ever struck by what a fine town this is (evidenced perhaps by the fact that this is the third time in as many months that we have mentioned Lutherstadt Wittenberg in our e-brief).

The Brussels alternative

But the hidden europe award for the most tasteful and stylish approach to Advent goes this year to Brussels, which does have a small Christmas market but not in the main square. The magnificent Grand Place, the showpiece piazza in the heart of the Belgian capital, is far too good for one of the identikit Christmas markets that clutter too many European squares in Advent. It takes a bit of civic and community courage to buck the commercial trend, but Brussels does just that. The Grand Place hosts a dramatic seasonal centrepiece: a life-size Christmas crib. Real sheep, probably more accustomed to grazing in the meadows of Flanders, swap rural duties for the festive buzz in the Grand Place, sometimes upstaging the Holy Family as the crib's star attraction.

All cribs give a local take on the story of the Nativity, and the Brussels variant is extremely well appointed. A five-star stable for Mary, Joseph and the sheep. From dusk to late evening, the entire Grand Place is transformed into a magical space with a mix of extraordinary sounds and light. Nothing is bought or sold. No bratwurst. No mulled wine. It is the finest Advent show we have seen this year. It provokes and inspires. Just as Christmas should.

We wish you all a very happy Christmas.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.