Long before the actual season starts, Christmas markets make their appearance in Manchester’s streets and squares - from November 9th to December 22nd it’s nearly two months in which foodies and shoppers can visit over 300 stalls with all kinds of offers. The traditional, well-rounded, well-lit Santa Claus sitting over the entrance of the Town Hall has become a beacon of Christmas mood.
In Germany, these markets don’t start before the very end of November, usually with the weekend that Germans see as “1. Advent”, lighting the first of four candles on the Advent Wreath that belongs in every German living room, documenting the last four weekends until the Christkind (the “Christ Child”) brings the gifts on Christmas Eve. And yes, Santa Claus is also part of the story – der “Weihnachtsmann” also visits on Christmas Eve, the time when children can open their presents, unlike in Britain, where they have to wait until the next morning.
The most visited Christmas market in Germany is in Cologne, surrounding the famous Cathedral.
While this market might be big, nobody would call it the most beautiful one, with lovely old towns sprawled out across the country and the Southern towns in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg more likely to add proper white snow to their appearance.
Manchester started its very own Christmas market tradition in 1999, the oldest German Christmas Market is the one in idyllic Bad Wimpfen, happening since 1487 A.D., when Emperor Friedrich III granted the permission to hold a market around Christmas.
Music, candles and delicacies
Christmas markets throughout Germany, although a shopping- and food experience like everywhere else, still maintain a lot of their religious background. Music, singing, presentations of community groups and charitable organisations are at the centre of the markets, a stage is an important part of the whole event. The sounds and the scents of the markets are – even in overcrowded places – a big part of any visit. Attractions like the Ice Skating rink in Cathedral Gardens or the connected Ice Village are rather rare in Germany.
Not rare are traditional delicacies, many of them also available in Manchester: Cookies, biscuits and other sweets, savoury meaty treats (and of course also Bratwurst), oven-baked apples with vanilla custard, pancakes and Glühwein, the famous German mulled wine, sweet and aromatic. Getting tipsy isn’t forbidden on German Christmas markets, flat out drunk on the other hand would be considered rude. It is, however, totally okay to sing Christmas songs with your friends, and you don’t have to be on key.
Another good reason to visit Christmas markets is finding gifts for your loved ones. While some claim that the kitschy goods you may find here are overpriced and rarely remarkable or inventive, there are also classics: Bees wax candles, natural beauty products and hand-carved wooden door signs, to name a few examples, give away their origin on first sight - and not to forget traditional woodcraft Christmas Ornaments, such as the Nutcracker or Christmas Pyramids, which have their roots in the Erzgebirge Region of Germany.
Last not least: If you are interested in German language and culture, you might find interesting input on most of the nine markets in Manchester City Centre. Many of the traders are straight out of Germany. Don’t mention the war, be prepared for a Brexit jibe or two, and try your German. As for Glühwein in Manchester: Yes, the very German “Christkindl's Glühwein” is on offer. But from my experience the mulled wine in the side alleys is just as good, just as strong and half as pricy.