Ah Christmas. I know it must be around the corner because the Coca Cola advert is back, along with John Lewis’ most recent attempt to emotionally blackmail me into buying expensive items from their stores. This year their Christmas advert features Bear and his best friend, Hare. Bear has never seen Christmas before, but once Hare drops a gift by his lonely cave, he ventures outside and discovers all the other animals exchanging presents; the true meaning of Christmas, apparently.
Feel free to call me Scrooge, but I don’t recognise this as Christmas. Considering last week's viral videos of Black Friday shoppers punching each other to claim exorbitantly priced items, at only fractionally less exorbitant prices, it’s no wonder Bear hid in his cave.
But fear not, there is an alternative, the German Christmas market - providing plentiful amounts of seasonal spirit. Or as Germans succinctly put it: Weihnachtsstimmung. It’s big business in Europe, with previous related spending reaching €5 billion. Birmingham’s Christmas market has been the UK’s best effort until now, set to attract record numbers this year, but there are also signs that Londoners are waking up to the tradition.
And so we should. As Ellie Gill, Head of the government backed Love Your Local Market campaign explained, it’s the “independent atmosphere, the tradition, unique gifts and the personability you get at Southbank and other local alternatives. Not forgetting the mulled wine and cider!” In a world dominated by tax avoiding online shopping behemoths and faceless super chains manned by unfulfilled twenty-somethings, it’s nice to experience some interaction with stall owners. There’s a level of engagement – from kids wide eyed at the bright lights, to merry adults haggling over prices – that doesn’t exist on social media, no matter how hard we push it. Browsing the markets can be a family occasion, offering delicious food along the way.
These markets can reflect our nation’s multiculturalism. This weekend sees the UK’s first International Festive Fair open at the Business Design Centre in Islington. The event promises to foster a truly international feel, with stall owners travelling from around the world to attend, bringing unique gifts with them. Finding charming, one-off gifts from far away nations is not something high street superstores provide at an affordable price.
There’s also a broader perspective. Despite George Osborne’s best celebratory rhetoric, we are still in a deep recession affecting real people; customers and stall owners alike. Our escape route lies in small businesses. Appreciating the huge part the street and Christmas market industry can play in this grassroots foundation, this Saturday sees SmallBizSaturday roll out across London and nationwide. Since being launched in the US in 2010, it has generated the equivalent of £3.5 billion. Considering the UK launch is taking place on the busiest shopping day off the year, there is hope a similar impact can be achieved in London and elsewhere.
I’ll leave the final word on why you should support Christmas markets this festive season to Clara Jung, a German gap-year volunteer visiting London, who I spoke to whilst browsing Crafty Fox’s Brixton market:
“In Germany it’s a tradition, a thing you do with your friends or family to find the Christmas spirit. I'd say these are things which high street shops don't offer, because these products are usually sold by personally. Corporations just see my money, but these Christmas markets are full of spirit; a warm experience...even if they are outside”.