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CHRISTMAS

Selling Yuletide cheer at German Christmas markets

Christmas markets are popular to visit, but have you ever thought about starting your own stand? Stuart Anderson looks into the realities of this famous German tradition from the other side of the counter.

Selling Yuletide cheer at German Christmas markets
Sigrid Steiger and Justin Burns at their stand. Photo: Stuart Anderson

Justin Burns is standing in front of his own stand, smelling, feeling, and comparing his own wares. He’s doing his best to look like a Christmas market customer.

“This really works!” Burns says. “People want to know what all the fuss is about if they see someone already standing here.”

Theories of group dynamics aside, business is slow on the first Saturday night of the Advent market in Neusäß, an outer suburb of the Bavarian city of Augsburg.

Burns, a Canadian who moved to Germany four years ago, and his partner, Sigrid Steiger, are first-time Christmas marketeers. The couple started making a range of all-natural, scented soaps in their kitchen in June, intended as personalised gifts for friends and family. But the gifts were so popular, they decided a Christmas market stand would be the perfect proving ground to see if the soap could become a fully fledged business.

“It’s really a bit of an experiment,” Burns says. “We’ve invested a lot of time and money into this and if it doesn’t go so well, we won’t come back next year. It’s not looking too good at the moment.”

The Neusäß Christmas market is typical of thousands of smaller markets across Germany. Unlike the tourist-pulling affairs of Dresden, Berlin or Nuremburg, it feels laid-back and familiar.

There’s a miniature train ride for the kids called the “Bayernexpress” around a circuit of oversized garden gnomes. A Klofrau watching over the restroom asks her “customers” for help with a crossword and a Christian choir sings sickly soul-healing melodies that were perhaps better left in the 1950s.

About half of the 40 stands are selling food and drink: Paper cones stuffed with hot chestnuts, bratwurst in warm buns and the hot, spicy beverage of choice, Glühwein.

Other stands offer gifts like wood carvings, candles and crib figurines. A small barnyard hosts a nativity scene, complete with a trio of real sheep munching hay and thanking God it isn’t shearing season yet.

“We didn’t know the weather would be so much of a factor,” Burns says.

It’s freezing. Germany’s Old Man Winter doesn’t always dust the ground with a delightful coat of powder snow and turn the markets into a frosty wonderland. He often drizzles and pours. And when the thought of Christmas shopping under driving rain is too much to bear, the shoppers stay at home.

There’s also a big “familiarity factor” at smaller, community based Christmas markets. If the shoppers don’t know who you are, they’re less likely to buy from you.

“Everyone said that their first year was hard, because it’s mostly locals that come here,” Burns says. “They’ve got to get to know you first. With us, maybe they’ll want to take some soap home and see how it feels first before they decide to buy more.”

Even though few are buying, visitors to the stand are cheery and seem genuinely interested in the couple’s products.

“We joked on the first night that if compliments were money, we’d already be rich!” Steiger says.

Starting your own Christmas market stall is no walk in the park. As with everything in Germany, there are rules. Burns said that although the Christmas market bureaucracy wasn’t exactly a minefield, there were a few obstacles along the way.

Finding a venue was the first challenge. Renting a stand at a smaller market isn’t prohibitively expensive but a spots can be notoriously hard to come by. Organisers (typically town and city councils) only allow a set number of vendors and most stands are held over year after year for the same vendors.

Making things harder, organizers often try to protect their established stands by only allowing one vendor for each kind of gift.

“The problem was that if there was already someone there selling soap, they didn’t want us there selling it to,” Burns says. “But it’s kind of hard to understand it from an anti-competition angle when there’s dozens of places all selling Glühwein.”

Steiger and Burns’ stand cost €150 for each weekend at the Neusäß Christmas market – a total of 18 opening hours from Friday to Sunday. Vendors also pay for their own electricity. But market stands in bigger cities with more foot traffic can cost much, much more.

Burns also stresses the stand has to look inviting, with well-displayed products and subtle decorations. “The organisers made sure that we were going to decorate it tastefully, with no flashing lights or anything.”

But most of all, prospective Christmas marketeers should bring plenty of patience and the determination to persevere.

By Sunday evening the rain has all but stopped. The smell of roasted chestnuts once again wafts over the market and groups of friends are gathered around cosy gas heaters, enjoying the festive spirit. The stand run by Steiger and Burn is attracting many more passers-by, and this time they’re not just looking, but buying.

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BAVARIA

Bar closures and no Christmas markets: How Bavaria is tightening Covid rules

Bavaria will order the closure of all bars and clubs as part of sweeping new restrictions to try and control the Covid spread and ease overrun hospitals. Here's a look at what's planned.

Closed Christmas market stalls in Munich.
Closed Christmas market stalls in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

On Friday Bavarian state leader Markus Söder announced more tough restrictions to deal with spiralling Covid infections and packed intensive care units.

“The corona drama continues,” said Söder after the cabinet meeting, adding that 90 percent of Covid patients in state hospitals are unvaccinated. “Being unvaccinated is a real risk.”

Bavaria has a vaccination rate of 65.9 percent – lower than the nationwide rate of almost 68 percent.

READ ALSO: Bavaria cancels all Christmas markets in Covid surge

Söder said the state’s Covid package was about “blocking, braking and boosting”, adding that vaccination centres will be ramped up. 

“We must act,” he said. “Bavaria is exhausting almost all legal means until December 15th.”

Earlier this week, Bavaria introduced a state-wide 2G rule, meaning only vaccinated people (geimpft) and people who’ve recovered from Covid (genesen) can enter many public spaces. People who are eligible to get vaccinated but choose not to get it are excluded. 

Here’s an overview of the planned restrictions set to come in on Wednesday, as reported by local broadcaster BR24. 

Bars, clubs and restaurant curfew

From Wednesday, and for three weeks, all nightlife like clubs, discos, bars, pubs and brothels in Bavaria are set to close their doors. Restaurants will have to shut at 10pm. So planned Christmas nights out will likely need to be cancelled or postponed. 

Christmas markets

There will be no Christmas or Christkindl markets in Bavaria this year. In the past days, several cities had announced that they would not be holding these events this year due to the Covid situation. 

Contact restrictions on the unvaccinated

Söder announced new restrictions on the number of people those who are not inoculated can socialise with. A maximum of five unvaccinated people will be allowed to meet, from two different households. Children under 12 will not be included in the total, as well as vaccinated or people who’ve recovered from Covid.

Cultural and sporting events

All cultural and sporting events can only take place with significantly reduced spectators. At theatres, opera performances, sporting events, in leisure centres and at trade fairs, there will be a 25-percent capacity limit. The 2G plus rule also applies. This means that only vaccinated and recovered people are allowed to enter (not the unvaccinated) – and only with a negative rapid test. Masks are compulsory everywhere.

Universities, driving schools, close-body services: 2G plus

All universities, driving schools, adult education centres and music schools will only be open to those who have been vaccinated and have recovered – making it 2G. This rule also applies to body-related services, like hairdressers and beauty salons. Only medical, therapeutic and nursing services are exempt from the 2G rule. So unvaccinated people can still go to the doctor or receive a medical procedure. 

KEY POINTS: Germany finalises new Covid restrictions for winter

Shops

Shops remain exempt from 2G rules, meaning unvaccinated people can visit them. However, there is to be limits on capacity. This means that fewer customers are allowed into a shop at the same time.

Special rules for hotspots

Currently, the incidence in eight Bavarian districts is above 1,000 infections per 100,000 people in seven days. Here and in all other regions where the incidence goes above this number, public life is to be shut down as far as possible.

This means that restaurants, hotels and all sports and cultural venues will have to close. Hairdressers and other body-related service providers will also not be allowed to open for three weeks, and events will also have to be cancelled. Universities will only be allowed to offer digital teaching. Shops will remain open, but there must be 20 square metres of space per customer. This means that only half as many customers as in other regions are allowed in a shop.

If the incidence falls below 1,000 for at least five days, the rules are lifted.

Schools and daycare

Throughout Bavaria, schools and daycare centres are to remain open. However, there will be regular Covid testing. Children and young people have to continue to wear a face mask during lessons, including school sports, unless they are exercising outside. 

Bavaria is expected to approve the measures on Tuesday and they will be in force until at least December 15th. We’ll keep you updated if there are any changes. 

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