It doesn’t seem so long ago that one had to jump on a plane to Germany to see a Christmas market. In fact, German markets first came to UK in 1997 when Frankfurt supported the cities of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Edinburgh to establish Christmas markets here. A little before that, in 1982, Lincoln established an annual Christmas market and it remains one of the biggest in UK.
It’s easy to think of them as yet another modern commercial ploy to make us part with money for things that are often of suspect quality at Christmastime. But Christmas markets date from the Middle Ages. They began in Germany – or in lands that are now part of Germany – and many say they still hold the best ones. Sadly I’ve never been to a German Christmas market but I’m beginning to think I should. Some of the first were held in Bautzen (1384), Frankfurt (1393), Dresden (1434), and Munich as far back as 1310. However, an annual December market began in Vienna in 1298, thus Austria could claim that it held the first Christmas market. Wherever they began, they were more modest affairs than those we see today, usually lasting only a couple of days.
What led me along this path of Christmas market storytelling today was a sortie into nearby Kingston upon Thames early this morning. Early to miss the now growing Christmas rush, not to mention the imported Black Friday from USA, which seems to span more days than one Friday. I have to confess that it was ‘Black Friday’ sales that tempted me along roads I’d never normally travel on weekends approaching Christmas. I need a new office chair and was hopeful that John Lewis was offering a discount on their range. They weren’t. It seemed anything I had in mind to buy wasn’t part of ‘Black Friday’ but there was a Christmas market.
In common with every Christmas market I’ve been to, Kingston’s market has adopted the German approach of using wooden chalet-huts as stalls, lit up with fairy lights.
It was a beautiful sunny November day, the sky a clear and cloudless blue, though a sharp crispness to the air that made me think it was definitely time to get out my winter hat. The stalls were spread all round the town, mixing with the regular stalls in the market square, and I decided it would be fun to explore.
Although I didn’t buy anything in the market, in the main the stalls were offering some good things and of course there was food and mulled wine on offer as well. Inevitably, with so many Christmas markets all round Europe now, let alone here in UK, the quality of goods on offer varies from lovely things made by authentic artisan and crafts people to pure tat – shoddy goods. But then I guess that’s part of the experience. Whatever’s on offer, it does put some Christmas cheer into our lives. Just a week or so ago, arriving at Waterloo station in London, I crossed Hungerford Bridge and looked across at the Christmas market set out along the South Bank and it did look pretty.
Today, as I walked round Kingston, I got thinking about other Christmas markets I’ve been to. The first ‘serious’ Christmas market I’ve visited was in Prague in 2005 with my daughter Nicola. I’d booked a last-minute short break there. It’s such a beautiful city and the Christmas market was spectacular.
I do remember it being bitterly cold but we loved the city and I’m still waiting to go back – perhaps at a warmer time of year!
Another Christmas market trip was to Lille in France with my friends Annie and Jerry. That was back in 2009.
We did a day trip in the car via the Channel Tunnel. It’s not that far and easily done in a day. I think we were all slightly disappointed in the market itself, which didn’t offer much that was interesting to buy, but we nevertheless had a brilliant day and ate a fabulous lunch. Lille is a great destination for lovers of good food and wine.
In December 2011, I visited my daughter in Birmingham and she suggested we go to the Christmas market in the centre of the city – mentioned above as one of the first in UK, based on Frankfurt’s.
What I remember of the market was that it was HUGE and very, very crowded! We had to be careful not to lose each other. It was fun to go but perhaps a bit too overwhelming.
We’re still in November and there are more Christmas markets to come; a local Christmas craft fair in Twickenham next week. It does feel a little early, but then it’s probably best to embrace the fun of it all and there’s no doubt that it puts a smile on everyone’s face.