The market organisers have turned the 18th century stuccoed high street in the once royal Prussian city of Potsdam into what they call "a light and fairy tale fantasyland". The smells of cinnamon and alcohol fill the air as stallholders, some dressed as Santa, ply customers with plastic cups brimming with Germany's inescapable Glühwein. Other vendors sell smoked meats, gingerbread men, wooden toys and sugar-coated loaves of famous Dresdner Stollen Christmas cake. It wasn't actually snowing in Potsdam yesterday, but loudspeakers blared out Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" all the same. The organisers behind the city's annual Christmas market had not baulked at using every seasonal trapping in an attempt to make the event a picture postcard tourist attraction, not to mention a major money earner. Nearly a million visitors flock to the market each year.
But instead of inducing waves of Christmas cheer, Potsdam's Yuletide market has this year met with a mixture of shock, outrage and calls for it to be boycotted. Protesters claim that the market organisers and the city government have colluded in the cynical business of putting commercial profit above the spirit of Christmas. Their crime, the protesters argue, was to open the market 10 days earlier than the traditional Christmas market starting date, which is on or after the first day of Advent. Leading the objectors was the former regional state prime minister, Manfred Stolpe. "Not even the regime in the former communist East went this far," he insisted.
The local Green party followed, declaring: "It is too early for Christmas markets." The Catholic and Protestant churches complained that the market was being set up before Germany's Remembrance Sunday, which occurred last week and therefore showed no respect for those killed in two World Wars.
The city government's excuse was that it had simply acceded to the wishes of Potsdam's Christmas market stall holders, who wanted to use the chance to trade on more days. He said he was following a national trend.
"We were simply taking our cue from other cities like Hamburg and Heidelberg which have also opened before Advent," insisted Potsdam's mayor, Jann Jakobs.
In Germany, the home of the Christmas market, the phenomenon is very big business indeed. Some 2,500 markets held across the country each year are estimated to earn between €3bn and €5bn. They create seasonal jobs for 188,000 stall holders and their helpers. Their numbers are growing and they are clearly opening ever earlier.
But could Potsdam's protest be the beginning of a backlash against uncontrolled Yuletide commercialism? Walter Angel, a 22–year-old Potsdam student would like to think it is: "The best thing would be to open Christmas markets at the end of the summer holidays and keep them open until at least Good Friday," he said yesterday, "Then people would get so fed up with them that they would go back to being December only events."