Business

How German Christmas markets came to the UK

German cabin Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Birmingham's market is organised by the city council in partnership with Frankfurt Tourism Congress

Bratwurst, gluehwein, and gingerbread: how has the German-style Christmas market become a key attraction in city centres all over the UK?

While Christmas markets go back to medieval Germany, they are a relatively recent addition to the British consumer's festive calendar.

The last 15 years have seen them sprout up across the country, with cities vying to declare their own Christmas market the most popular.

Last year Birmingham's Frankfurt market had almost five million visitors to its 180 stalls, while some nine million people visited Manchester's 300-stall market, which has seen huge growth since it began in 1999 with just 15 stalls.

Image copyright Christopher Furlong
Image caption A stall holder in Birmingham's Frankfurt market prepares her sweet and nut stall

'Astonishing'

Edith Lovegrove, who is from Cologne, was among the first to bring the German festivities to the UK. She founded the company Xmas Markets after seeing the popularity of German Christmas markets in her hometown.

Ms Lovegrove currently runs a Christmas market at the Tate Modern in London, but her traditional-style markets were previously situated on the South Bank and at Hyde Park.

"I found it astonishing that people would sit all these hours in a coach to see Christmas markets," she says.

"I knew there wasn't anything like it in the UK, so I thought it was a good idea to transport something like that."

Not all of her traders come from Germany, which, she says, is what makes her market authentic.

"It is the same in Germany, not all of the traders are German. I think everybody should sell what they do best.

"Most of the handmade glass-blown baubles are from traders in Hungary, my crepe-seller is from France and we have beautiful amber pieces from stallholders from the Baltics."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Gingerbread is popular at this Christmas market in London

Ms Lovegrove says that although some German markets in the UK do maintain an authentic feel, some have turned the German theme into more of a "fun-fair-cum-Oktoberfest".

"And that's not the atmosphere of what a traditional Christmas market is supposed to be," she says.

Ms Lovegrove insists that the German market trend is not new, but that it is just now being noticed. "Event companies have found out that it is something the public likes, but I think the public themselves have always liked these markets."

Getting the formula right

Some cities in the UK have seen the success of the German markets in neighbouring authorities and have tried to replicate it.

John Hirst is chief executive at Destination Bristol, which promotes tourism in Bristol. The city introduced a German-style market five years ago.

He says Bristol's market was inspired by the success of Birmingham's Frankfurt market.

Image copyright destination bristol
Image caption Bristol's German market has expanded over the last few years

Mr Hirst says that in previous years the German market has had a negative impact on local businesses, but this year there have been some changes and now they "have the formula right".

"Local food retailers were suffering because [the German market] was novel and different," he says. "This year we had to do something to make it fairer for the existing retailers.

"We reduced the amount of space that the market occupied by 30% and the type of products sold."

Peak Bratwurst?

Mr Hirst says the market is retaining its popularity with the public but he does wonder: "When is the bubble going to burst?"

Major food retailers have also noticed a new preference for German-style Christmas products.

Waitrose says that sales of stollen (fruit cake) in the first week of December were up 60%, and gingerbread houses were up 127% on the same period last year.

"Once considered delicacies found only at trips to Christmas markets, German-style cakes and bakes such as stollen and lebkuchen are now considered festive staples in British shopping baskets," says Marianne Robson, Waitrose's Christmas bakery buyer.

While UK supermarkets like Waitrose can sell the taste of the German market, the atmosphere keeps the public visiting the street-side cabins.

Anya Manke is from Frankfurt and has been running a gluehwein (German mulled wine) stall in the Manchester Christmas market for 14 years.

"Every year the same amount of people visit," she says. "People meet at the market like they would in a restaurant or a bar."


The view from Berlin

By Elizabeth Hotson, business reporter

There are dozens of Christmas markets in Berlin spread right across the city. They're often situated in picturesque locations, including here under the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

Music comes courtesy of choirs or a brass band but food and drink is the main attraction. From currywurst and gingerbread to sugared almonds and spiced wine, it's a wonderland of festive treats. The sounds, smells and sheer volume of people can be overwhelming with families, work groups, tourists and couples getting into the Christmas spirit.

Johann Luxem is visiting Berlin to see friends. In Cologne he runs a traditional food and drink stall, but he often visits the UK to scope out the competition.

"Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, London and Edinburgh all have impressive German Christmas markets and I like to see what they're selling."

But he says there is one big difference between Germany and the UK.

"The gluehwein stalls are often fenced off in the UK, whereas in Germany there seems to be a more relaxed attitude to alcohol."


'Less corporate'

Image caption German sausages including currywurst and bratwurst are sold in Cardiff's festive quarter

One events company that has noticed that the public desire the experience as much as the product is Sayers Amusements, which runs the Cardiff Bay Beach in the summer and Cardiff and Swansea Winter Wonderlands in the run-up to Christmas.

"We have had a look at European markets and seen that there is a warm Christmas feeling around it," says Norman Sayers, senior director of the family company.

Despite the fact that they cater for work parties, Mr Sayers says they have made efforts to make the Winter Wonderland in Cardiff "a lot less corporate", particularly now it has a wooden lodge.

Ian Danahar, who works in insurance in Cardiff, visited the German-style lodge on his work Christmas party.

He hopes that the Cardiff market will expand. "If they could find a bigger venue, I think it would be really well supported.

"It's the atmosphere that makes it. Where else can you stand outside, in a shed, in December, in the cold, drinking beer?"

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