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Colorful Christmas lights and a light snowman along Berlin's Ku'Damm street
Decorative lighting is a large part of Germany's modern Christmas traditionImage: Lisa Stüve/DW
TravelGermany

Germany's energy crisis: Christmas lights under scrutiny

Lisa Stüve in Berlin
November 30, 2022

With Germany in the midst of an energy crisis brought on in part by the war in Ukraine, Christmas lights and Christmas markets have become a subject of debate.

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The Christmas season is underway in Germany: The first snowflakes have already fallen from the sky, Christmas markets have opened, and twinkling Christmas lights hang in city centers, adding to Germany's renowned Christmas spirit.

But the energy crisis had made Germany's love of Christmas lights controversial. The power used by the decorative lights in public spaces is not only expensive, it's also linked to the war in Ukraine, as the energy crisis is caused in part by Russia's reduction of gas deliveries amid tensions over its invasion of Ukraine. 

Energy crisis and savings

Long before the start of the Christmas season, Germans started debating how ethical it was to have elaborately-lit Christmas displays in visible spaces. Was it really necessary to have that Santa Claus hanging from the balcony, or a fleet of reindeer with blinking noses on your roof?

Some say all nonessential electricity use should be stopped to show support for Ukraine. But others say it’s important, especially in times of crisis, to lift people’s spirits with Christmas decorations.

Jürgen Resch, Executive Director of the German environmental organization Environmental Action Germany, pointed out that electricity consumption is particularly high during the Christmas season. Lighting should be greatly reduced this year in particular, he said in an interview with DW.

"It's not that it should stay dark in Germany at Christmastime, but instead of glistening bright lights on shopping streets that consume a lot of electricity, we should instead focus on the essentials," Resch said. 

Christmas ornaments hang at a stand at a Christmas market on Bebelplatz
Germany's Christmas markets attract tourists from all over the worldImage: Lisa Stüve/DW

Illuminated city centers

In September 2022, the Berlin senate announced it wouldn't use public funds to pay for Christmas lighting around the German capital. Its justification was the energy crisis and the need to save money.

The 140,000 LEDs that decorate the famous Kurfürstendamm boulevard in the western part of Berlin were turned on last week — but only thanks to private donations. The trees along the Berlin boulevard of Unter den Linden, on the other hand, are without their usual sparkling lights.

Christmas lights on Kurfürstendamm
Christmas lights along Kurfürstendamm in Berlin are only shining thanks to private contributionsImage: Joerg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

Christmas markets and tourism

Some cities have chosen to shorten the opening hours of Christmas markets to save energy — or as in the German town of Fulda, close them one day a week.

The German Showmen's Association sees no real power savings as a result of the change and points out the importance of Christmas markets as places where people can gather and meet, especially during difficult times. 

The energy-saving discussion doesn't seem to have dampened the spirits of visitors at the "Weihnachtszauber" Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market on Bebelplatz. One of the city's most-popular markets, it was previously held at the Gendarmenmarkt in central Berlin until construction on the plaza forced it to move to nearby Bebelplatz.

At the market, the mood is cheerful. In contrast to many other Christmas markets, it is discreetly illuminated. A large Christmas tree made of lights is the main light-related decoration in the center of the market. 

A large tree of lights in front of a large building on Bebelplatz
This year's 'Weihnachtszauber' Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market was moved to BebelplatzImage: Lisa Stüve/DW

A number of languages can be heard while walking next to the stalls frequented by visitors from all over the world. After all, Germany’s Christmas markets — with their mulled wine or "Glühwein" in German, grilled bratwurst and twinkling lights — are known far beyond Germany’s borders.

"The Christmas season as it is celebrated here in our country is part of our culture and tradition, and is especially important for international tourism," explains Christian Tänzler of Visit Berlin.

He added that this includes festively lit streets such as Kurfürstendamm. "We live in an age of social media, and when Kurfürstendamm is lit up at Christmas time, it conveys a different image to the outside world than a dark Kurfürstendamm," he says.

At the Christmas market at Bebelplatz, Nicole and Andrew from the US are overjoyed to experience the Christmas market season, which in the bigger cities can run for four to five weeks.

For Jessica and Tillmann from Berlin, both the markets and the lighting play an important part of the Christmas feeling and mood during the dark season. 

A stand at a Christmas market selling food and drinks is rimmed with lightbulbs
Switching to LED lighting helps save energy, but venders must also reduce the amount of lights used in order to make an impactImage: Lisa Stüve/DW

A couple from Sweden tells DW it's wonderful and, above all, very German. "But as great as the market is, I think the whole thing should be shortened. Instead of a month, just 14 days to save electricity," the man says.

Celebrating while saving electricity

Alexander Wiencke, general manager of the Heißen Hütte market stands — which sell warm beverages like Glühwein — said they optimized their lighting before the season began. "Saving energy was an issue for us previously. We converted everything to LEDs years ago, and all employees are encouraged to be as energy efficient as possible this year," he explains. 

A nutcracker statue next to a store selling Christmas ornaments and a tree with Christmas lights next to it
Some involved in the discussion say Christmas lights are important as they lift people's spirits in times of crisisImage: Lisa Stüve/DW

Undeniably, LEDs are more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs. But Jürgen Resch from Environmental Action Germany points out that converting to LEDs is of little use if you then have twice as many lighting elements. He'd prefer to see reduced lighting overall.

The pre-Christmas period in Germany, with all its markets and lights, is a magnet for tourists from all over the world. While sparkling Christmas lights can be a waste of energy if overdone, there’s also a way to use lights minimally. The Weihnachtszauber market on Bebelplatz is trying to show how.

This article was originally published in German. 

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