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Counting on Christmas

Madeleine Meier / gswDecember 4, 2013

The business in mulled wine and holiday trinkets is booming in Germany, as an increasing number of Christmas markets spring up in popular tourist destinations. For many artisans, the trend is ensuring their survival.

A stand featuring glasswares at a Christmas market (c) Madelaine Meier /DW
Image: DW/Madelaine Meier

Glassblower Peter Schrade ducks out from beneath the glass orbs hanging down from his Christmas market stand. He explains to a customer - in perfect English - how the glass amulet she's holding up to the light was crafted. Schrade's display includes countless necklaces that he and his wife made together. The couple have been working on their Christmas wares since May.

"We bring in around half of our annual income in the last three months of the year," he says.

Things are tough for those working in Germany's glassworking branch, which faces stiff competition from cheap Chinese imports. That's one reason why Schrade and other merchants depend so heavily on the Christmas season, when tourists from France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands and beyond travel to German markets in search of local and handcrafted trinkets.

Peter Schrade (c) Madelaine Meier /DW
Schrade says Christmas ensures artisans' survivalImage: DW/Madelaine Meier

On average, Christmas market visitors spend around 30 euros ($41), mostly on decorative objects. That tally doesn't include food and drinks purchased on site.

Anne, who travelled from Scotland to the Cologne Christmas market in front of the city's landmark Gothic cathedral, describes the atmosphere as "magical."

She says that the German markets are famous in her country, where they don't have anything comparable.

Counting on Christmas

Schrade does well from the international customers. "We glassworkers are a dying breed here in Germany," he says. "But interestingly, Americans and Brits view our craft in a very different light."

The artisan has been working with glass for 30 years, and all that time he's been selling at the Christmas markets. Together with his wife, he rented an apartment on the outskirts of Cologne for these six weeks in which he's selling his wares at the city's best-known market.

The cost of renting a stand there runs into the thousands of euros, and preliminary work on his glass sculptures, earrings and necklaces also eats up a lot of money. That means investments are necessary to keep the business going.

"Times are tough for artisans. I'm pretty sure that, without Christmas, there wouldn't be a single artisanal craftsman in Germany," he says.

Christmas Market stands in Cologne (c) Oliver Berg/dpa
The Christmas market at Cologne's landmark cathedral is among Germany's most popularImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Schrade's stand is located at one of Germany's most famous and well-attended markets, where 150 stands stretch between the Cologne Cathedral and the nearby Romano-Germanic Museum. When the market was organized for the first time, in 1995, there were three Christmas markets in the entire city. Now, there are seven large-scale outdoor markets, as well as a number of smaller clusters of Christmas vendors.

Despite the growing competition, Monika Flocke decided four years ago to enter the industry. She gave up her job as an attorney and instead started organizing the market held at the Cologne Cathedral.

"Christmas has a lot to do with emotion," she says, "A project like this can't be managed on economic considerations alone."

Even though Flocke is competing with a number of other markets in Cologne, she says that "interest is growing steadily. This is a constantly expanding market."

Mere tradition means 'stagnation'

Christmas market planning gets underway in February, including the review of artisans' applications, putting together the stage program, and setting up the technical infrastructure.

Monika Flocke (c) Kölner Weihnachtsgesellschaft
Flocke: 'I have the greatest job in the world'Image: Kölner Weihnachtsgesellschaft

"Tradition alone is equivalent to stagnation," says Flocke. The market she manages is offering a smartphone app this year, as well as a public WIFI network, intended to help visitors determine what's going on at the market.

Flocke and her business partners have invested several million euros but it will take a decade, she estimates, before the market as a whole turns its first profit. The city of Cologne only issues leases for five years at a time. Next year, she'll have to reapply.

But it's a risk she's happy to take. "I have the greatest job in the world," she says. "Nonetheless, I've put a ban on Christmas decorations at my house."

The tradition of German Christmas markets dates back 600 years. The oldest recorded market is held in Dresden. Known as the Striezelmarkt, it's taking place for the 579th time in 2013. The business in holiday cheer is booming in Dresden as well, where the number of markets has ballooned from four to 11 in the past 13 years.

Many fair vendors have discovered the Christmas potential and are shifting their business accordingly. Hans Peter Arens, the president of Germany's Federal Association of Exhibitors and Merchants (BSM), is among them. Arens started out at age 10, selling roasted almonds at his parents' stand. He's spent half of his life traveling with carousels and rides from fairground to fairground.

"The festival business does very poorly early in the year," he says. "Until early August, the exhibitors and operators make almost nothing. So that has to be counterbalanced with strong profits from the Christmas market season."