When I suggested, as a visitor to Hamburg, an expedition to the Christmas market outside the town hall, I did not expect to stumble across two other such markets on our way there. We found a third, comprising a neat row of star-topped white tents, at the southern end of the lake. We had not walked ten minutes.
German Christmas celebrations are elaborate, and have deep roots. The whole Advent season is important, and children might be visited by an array of characters: St Nikolaus, who fills shoes with treats on 5 December; his devilish companion Krampus; and the Christkindl, an angel who visits with presents on 24 December. It was George III’s German wife, Charlotte, who first popularised Christmas trees in Britain around 1800.
[See also: What it means to be German]
In the UK, I explained to a German colleague, Christmas markets are – I paused, not knowing the German term for “tacky” – cheap, and yet somehow still overpriced. I was thinking of the fortune I have spent under tinsel-topped huts on London’s South Bank or outside Exeter Cathedral. I was thinking of the garish signs, the overwhelming amount of things on sale.
Here, though, I found a reasonably priced mug of Glühwein (in a real mug, that is – Germans take their Pfand, or deposit scheme, seriously) and a dish of Kartoffelpuffer (potato fritters) with salmon. There were trinkets for sale – iced gingerbread hearts, tree decorations, candles – yet it was around tabletops that most people were gathered. Shopping wasn’t the objective here. It was about spending time with friends – in a seasonally appropriate way.
Finally, we reached Hamburg’s biggest Christmas market, set underneath the impressive Neo-Renaissance town hall. We heard a booming voice, and everyone looked up. Father Christmas was in his sleigh and making his way across the square on a rickety-looking high-wire. In the UK it would have seemed pathetic. Of course, in Hamburg I found it charming.
[See also: This year, all I want for Christmas is normality]
This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special