Out of Germany: Seasonal festivities in a market fuelled by candle-power

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BONN - Think of the days before Christmas in Britain, and you probably think, above all, of the daunting crowds of shoppers and of electronic wizardry in depressing quantities. The Germans, consumer-kings of Europe, have plenty of that, too. Like everybody else, they complain, too, that commercialism has taken over. But everything is relative. Here, it is candles with everything. Heaven knows what that does for the fire statistics, but the cuteness factor is high.

Almost every German town has its own Christmas market. The most famous is in Nuremberg, visited by shoppers from all over Germany. But even the run-of-the-mill markets are attractive. Game Boy is almost nowhere to be seen. Instead, the markets have plays and puppet shows, hot, spicey gluhwein and Christmas paraphernalia. Advent wreaths, candles of all shapes and sizes, and wooden 'Christmas pyramids', where heat from candles propels a mini-merry-go-round, with or without small bells. Painted nativity figures spin round at a sedate pace or hectic speed.

The decorations are seen as a key part of Christmas itself. Many are traditionally made in east Germany and were an important part of export earnings in the Communist years. Thus, the pyramids come from the Erzgebirge region, in the south-east, near the border with the Czech republic. The village of Lauscha, to the west, has for more than a century produced the little glass balls that decorate Christmas trees the world over. Lauscha has been a centre of glass-making for 400 years; every other family is said to depend for its living on the Christmas baubles.

Many of the rituals of a British Christmas, including the Christmas tree itself, arrived from Germany with Queen Victoria's Prince Albert. But, while the British Christmas has in the meantime become what sometimes seems to be 100 per cent guaranteed plastic, Germany remains at least half-loyal to what came before.

Even when traditions are rejected, it is sometimes for unexpected reasons. Thus, the German equivalent of tinsel is now considered environmentally unsound. The strands contain lead, which is an ecological no-no. The tinsel boycott lobby suggests nuts, fruit and straw stars as an 'aesthetically satisfying alternative'.

Even those seeking to escape Christmas at home can take a slice with them on holiday: one airline announced that winter-sun holidaymakers may take a Christmas tree with them, as a special baggage allowance, free of charge. But not everybody is thinking of foreign holidays. Germans talk constantly of the terrible state of the economy (read: no longer the strongest in the world); even Christmas provides an opportunity to reflect on how badly things are going.

One survey indicated that corporate Christmas gifts to customers and employees are more modest this year than every before. Many firms said they had abandoned Christmas cards, too, as part of the new cost-cutting measures. Volkswagen, whose woes have sometimes seemed never-ending, said it was only sending out Christmas cards in 'exceptional cases' - which seemed to beg as many questions as it answered.

With or without cards in 'exceptional cases', there will be good reasons to regret the end of the Christmas season in Bonn. The Christmas market, on the Cathedral square, helped breathe unusual life into the city centre; Bonn usually spends so much time revering itself as an international capital that it forgets how to enjoy life as a not-very-large town.

Above all, however, in Bonn and elsewhere in Germany, Christmas is untypical because you can shop in the evenings, and even - this, the most shocking of all - on a Saturday afternoon. In normal circumstances, come Saturday 2.01pm, shops across Germany are barred and shuttered, for the weekend.

A change in the rules is now being debated. But it may be unwise to expect anything to change too quickly. The Ladenschlussgesetz, or Shop-Closing-Law, was already the subject of political controversy and indignant cover stories back in 1987 - with little obvious effect today, except the continued rehashing of old arguments, for and against. In any case, if you want to go shopping on Saturday afternoon, there is no problem: you merely have to wait until Christmas comes again next year.