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Business

Berlin's Christmas markets try to trade cheer

Facing a terror warning, a slowly recovering economy, and drastic weather, Berlin's more than 50 Christmas markets are dealing with more challenges than usual this year.

Christmas market in Berlin

Berlin has no shortage of Christmas markets

Booth lights twinkle, children's rides whirl and spin, and carols rings out from overhead loudspeakers at the City Weihnachtsmarkt in the western part of Berlin. Welcoming and hopeful faces manning the Christmas stands still hope for customers despite this year's terror warning, icy rain, and swirling snowstorms.

Johanna Sievers is one of them. The young student is working for the first time at a traditional Christmas market. Her booth sells treats imported from the Provence region in southern France, including rich almond studded nougat, caramels and chocolates. The newly opened gourmet shop she's working for hopes to attract more customers through its booth.

Terror warning

But after a government-issued terror warning was released at the end of November, along with news reports that Christmas markets might be targeted, some of Sievers' friends expressed concerns about her job.

Johanna Sievers at her market stand

Sievers isn't letting security concerns get her down

“When I say I'm working in a Christmas market, many say 'oh my God, really?' and they are worried. I'm worried too, a little bit,” she admits. “Well, the world's a dangerous place, so why not go to a Christmas market? You can cross the street and get run over. That's actually more likely.”

Many Christmas markets are trying to calm fears with a visible police presence and non-uniformed security personnel making their rounds to keep everyone happy - and shopping.

As a Norwegian tourist picks up a tiny bag of chocolate-covered figs, Sievers makes sure to point out the price, 5 euros, explaining that people usually balk at paying that amount for the small bag of handcrafted French sweets. Unfazed, the tourist adds it to her order and also tells Sievers to keep the change, not common behavior for Berliners.

Across town in Prenzlauer Berg's Scandinavian-themed Lucia Weihnachtsmarkt, Bilgec Serdaroglu is charming customers with his friendly demeanor and tasty hand-made goods. A small but steady stream of customers stops at his stand to taste mustards flavored with whiskey, chilli and even licorice. He also has vinegars and preserves. Most of his wares are priced at an affordable 2.50 euros.

An employee of a private security company stands guard at the Christmas market in front of the French cathedral on Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin

Private security guards maintain a visible presence at Berlin's markets

First rain, then snow

Serdaroglu, who moved to Berlin from Hamburg, has been selling at the market for six years, but this is the first year he is at the market with his own company. He's excited.

Still, Serdaroglu admits people in the city have a tight grip on their wallets. "Berlin is the capital, but the sad part is that it's the weakest city economically," he says. People have difficulties with money, he adds, and going to the Christmas market definitely means spending money.

"If I take my children to the Christmas market, I have to plan on spending an average of 50 euros," Serdaroglu says. "Can I afford it or not? That's the question. So I can understand when people are holding back a bit."

Open air markets like this one also suffer from the weather. First came the rain at the end of November, followed by surprising amounts of snow, which cancelled flights and delayed trains, slowing down locals and tourists alike.

And while visitors to Berlin's Christmas markets seem to be taking the terror warnings and weather surprises in stride, they aren't all whipping out their cash. Stands selling hot drinks, snacks and affordable gifts are doing well, but some merchants offering jewelry, pottery and other higher priced items gaze out from their unvisited booths looking bored and frustrated.

Browsing but not buying

From a spot next to a wood-burning stove, visitor Frank Huehn watches the crowd slowly pass by a stand selling felted boots from Switzerland. Many people stop to look and warm their hands, but few purchase the shoes, which cost over 100 euros.

Browsing at Christmas stand

Lots of browsing but not enough buying at stands, merchants say.

Huehn, a merchant himself, isn't selling his own sheepskin goods at this Christmas market or any other. “The question isn't just how many people come and walk around the market; vendors are interested in how many are shopping," he says. "The market can be very busy, with people exhibiting their wares, and visitors browsing, but they aren't necessarily buying anything."

The rent at holiday markets, Huehn argues, is too high for an unpredictable payoff. Committing for the full run of the season is too risky; he prefers to try his luck at weekly local markets instead.

In the last few years, things have changed for small sellers of handmade goods, partly because of the financial crisis and partly because of a new mindset in Germany, according to Huehn. “In my opinion, a majority of today's 25 and 30-year-olds just don't have a sense for quality in products and materials," he says. "They don't work with their hands anymore, so they have no idea - they can't judge the quality. They just decide on the price. The older people can tell - they can pick something up in their hands and feel the quality, and they're ready to pay for it. The young people can't. It's an unfortunate development.”

Author: Susan Stone
Editor: John Blau

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