Christmas just doesn’t seem right without going to the market, strolling along the handicraft stalls, having some mulled wine, admiring the decorations, trees and lights. Even during the pandemic, when everything was closed and there were no stalls, just walking through the twinkling streets and past the lighted trees brought a bit of much needed comfort to people’s hearts.
Now, Christmas markets are back in force around the world, seemingly brighter and merrier than ever. But a global pandemic is not the only thing the holiday fairs have had to survive throughout the years. From the very first small bazaars in Germany, they have been on and off through consumerism, Nazism and wars, but they have always come back.
Dresden’s 1434 Striezelmarkt is designated as the first true Christmas market. Although season markets were held before, they were simply December markets, recorded as far back as in 1298 in Vienna, but Dresden’s was held on Christmas Eve and especially for the holiday.
The industrial revolution heavily shifted the atmosphere and purpose of Christmas markets. Their popularity grew among the new working class, which prompted more and more vendors to bring their produce to the fairs. From 1808 to 1840, the number of stalls at the market in Berlin doubled from 303 to over 600. But, by the end of the 19th century, Christmas markets were moved from city centres to the outskirts, as new department stores feared the competition and the elites were unhappy with the masses of people flocking the streets.
The Nazis knew it would be impossible to eradicate Christianity entirely, so they decided to rework it in their own image.Erin Blakemore, author and journalist
It was, in fact, the Nazis that brought Christmas markets back to city centres in the 1930s. The reasons were expectedly unholy. “During the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis did their best to transform Germany’s beloved Christmas traditions into Nazi ones. They knew it would be impossible to eradicate Christianity entirely, so they decided to rework it in their own image. They inserted Nazi imagery and even Nazi party officials into things like nativity scenes and Christmas parties”, Erin Blakemore explains in an article for History.
Christmas markets played also played and additional role on the Nazis’ agenda during the Great Depression, when, hoping to boost the economy, they promoted German-made goods, from decorations and toys to meat and baked goods. Their plan worked, the popularity of Christmas markets grew across the country, with 2 million people visiting the fair in Berlin in 1936.
During World War II, they were shut down, but came back even stronger in the 1960s and 1970s, fuelled by an economic boom and the rise of consumerism. After this, Christmas markets slowly became more than just shopping opportunities, they became cultural events which started spreading outside Germany, with cities across the world, from the US to Japan, starting to host their own German-style Christmas markets.
In their homeland, the number of Christmas markets grew from about 950 in the 1970s to almost 3,000 in 2019 and they are now seen as a major tourist attraction in the winter months. Even in the UK the number of markets more than tripled from 2007 to 2017.
For their role in bringing people together, for the atmosphere they create and for how they have adapted through better and worse times, many historians advocate for Christmas markets to be included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, but whether Germany will submit an application remains to be seen.