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Germany's Yuletide markets: The fight before Christmas

They are big business - but this year stallholders have been accused of putting cash before seasonal cheer by opening too early

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 fantasy land". Hundreds of imported fir trees line its length and 10,000 fairy lights sway in the breeze on their branches.

The smell of hot cinnamon and alcohol fills the air as stall holders, some dressed in Father Christmas outfits, ply customers with plastic cups brimming with Glühwein. Other vendors sell smoked meats, gingerbread biscuits, wooden toys and sugar-coated loaves of famous Dresdner Stollen Christmas cake.

It wasn't 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 used every seasonal trapping to make the event a picture-postcard tourist attraction. Nearly a million visitors flock to the market each year.

But this year, instead of inducing waves of undiluted Christmas cheer, Potsdam's Yuletide market has provoked outrage and calls for a boycott. Protesters claim the market organisers and city government have colluded in 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, a veteran Social Democrat politician who served as a Protestant Church official in former communist East Germany. "Not even the regime in the former communist East went this far," he said. "I hope there are plenty of people in Potsdam who will boycott the Christmas market."

The local Green party declared: "It is too early for Christmas markets." The Catholic and Protestant Churches complained that the market was set up before Germany's Remembrance Sunday, which occurred last week, and therefore showed no respected for those killed in two world wars. "Christmas markets should be held during Advent," said the head of the regional Protestant Church.

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," said Potsdam's mayor, Jann Jakobs.

In Germany, the home of the Christmas market, about 2,500 markets are held each year, bringing in between €3bn (£2.4bn) and €5bn. They create seasonal jobs for 188,000 stall holders and their helpers. Their numbers are growing and they are opening ever earlier.

Hans-Peter Ahrens, the president of Germany's market stall holders association, is delighted by the boom: "I know the church encourages reflection, but I can only be reflective when the cash register is ringing," he told Der Spiegel magazine.

All big cities now hold Christmas markets, including those in the former communist east. Germany has also successfully exported the phenomenon to countries including Japan, the US and Britain – with Birmingham hosting what is believed to be the largest German Christmas market outside Germany.

But in Germany itself, the Christmas market has long been permitted to deviate from its Christian roots. In Hamburg the Reeperbahn red light district runs a pornographic Yuletide market where, for the past six or seven years, stall holders have sold a mulled wine nicknamed "virility punch" along with erotic pictures and wooden dildos made by a company specialising in "natural" sex toys.

The west German town of Bergisch-Gladbach has opened a Feng-Shui Christmas market, which ensures that customers avoid bad karma by creating a harmonious environment in which all stalls are grouped together according to what they sell.

But for the most part Germans seem to accept that nothing can stop the Christmas juggernaut from getting a little bit earlier each year. Phalanxes of chocolate Father Christmases, wrapped in red and white foil uniforms, line up on the shelves of German supermarkets as early as late September. Profits from these items alone are estimated to be around €94m.

By mid-October many stores are already bursting with an array of early Christmas goods. 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."

In numbers

718yrs The age of Europe's oldest Christmas market, in Vienna.

€5bn The amount taken annually at Germany's markets.

188,000 The number of seasonal jobs created each year in Germany.