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CHRISTMAS

Behind the Christmas market holiday sparkle

One of the compensations for the early nights that can make late November gloomy, is the sudden appearance of twinkling markets across the country. Tracy Moran went behind the sparkly scenes of German Christmas markets.

Behind the Christmas market holiday sparkle
Photo: Tracy Moran

Although German Christmas markets can now be found around the world, the real thing is less purely Teutonic than one might think – traders come from all over Europe to set up stalls at the markets across Germany.

Stuttgart’s market opens each year on the Wednesday after Remembrance Sunday, but like all the others, only after months of planning and an intense build week.

Bernd Bullinger has been the ringmaster of Stuttgart’s Christmas market for the past decade.

Although visitors meandering the 4,200 square feet of market area might feel the myriad of crafts and edibles on offer have come together by chance, Bullinger said he monitors the variety very carefully.

“My focus on the market is to get special, handcrafted products that shoppers can’t find anywhere else,” he said.

Demand for stall space is huge

Each year, the market hosts 285 traders, up to 90 per cent of whom are regulars. Demand for those spots which become vacant is high, with between 1,500 and 2,000 applicants for each one.

Bullinger is the one who has to strike a balance of products on offer.

If a wooden toy maker retires, for example, Bullinger tries to replace the seller with another of that type. “So, in the name of variety, even with 2,000 applicants, it’s sometimes hard to find the right trader.”

The other crucial matter which visitors might not immediately appreciate is the tricky hunt for big and beautiful enough fir trees.

Four large trees, between 25 and 28 metres tall, must be located, bought, transported and decorated each year. In recent years, the greenery has been found in the Schwabisch Alps. This year, the price tag came to nearly €25,000.

Trials of getting the right trees

“It takes some time to get proper trees,” Bullinger said. “Often people will call to say they have nice trees, but when we get there we learn they’re only about 10 metres high.”

Touring the market with Bullinger on day two of the build-up, it is clear he is a one-man show – ensuring traders are in the right place, and all safety regulations are being followed.

“There could be 20 of me, and it still wouldn’t be enough,” he said. Many of the traders are focusing on decorating the roofs of their stalls – a particular speciality in Stuttgart.

They bear greenery, sleighs, lights, moving figurines and much more. Traders have been known to spend thousands on the their rooftop displays, and the trend has developed in recent years into a friendly competition decided by a vote by visitors via a form in the city’s weekly newspaper.

Melanie Weber, 32, has a gingerbread stall in the Schlossplatz with nearly €5,000 worth of decorations on her roof. “We add something to the scene each year, costing about €1,000,” she said. She seems to relish the competition but admitted to never having won the top prize. “Maybe this year,” she said hopefully.

A Herculean effort to prepare the stalls

The traders make Herculean efforts to get their stalls ready on time. The build-up period might be full of jokes about taking Glühwein breaks but actually there was hardly a moment to spare.

Glass artist Alex Kogan, 50, and his stall manager Norbert Kuhnel, 60, said they had been working long hours to get everything done. “We finished last night at midnight and were back here this morning for seven,” Kogan said.

“Building up is the hardest part,” said Kuhnel, who will be alone at the stall for 10 hours a day through the entire 26-day run of the market.

“I love the market,” says Kuhnel. “Just talking to people every day – with new faces and new little stories, talking about different stuff – it’s nice to be here. I love the atmosphere.”

Enrica Blessing, 37, who has had a stall selling olive oil bath products for the past six years made it clear there was not much time for taking breaks and socialising. “I believe the neighbour sells soup,” she says jokingly, pointing out that she spends 10-12 hours in her stall, rather than out with the market visitors.

Yet even though she gets little chance to browse with the other shoppers, she said she loved being amidst them and seeing their cheerful faces. “It’s a wonderful feeling when someone buys your product and is happy to do so,” she explains.

Months of preparation

“People are happy here at the Stuttgart market, and that makes for a good feeling.”

Although the four million or so visitors to the Stuttgart market may see it as a purely Christmas activity – to soak up the atmosphere and assuage looming present-list anxiety – it is a months-long endeavour.

Blessing and other craft stall holders have been preparing for months, making the products which will fill their stalls. The olive oil specialist said she began making her soaps, milks and body butters at least three months ago.

Glass expert Kogan said he starts planning as early as February when he and his team begin hand blowing candle holders and decorations for the next market season. “In January we get a bit of sleep,” Kogan joked. And even Bullinger said he started planning in May.

This preparation can be seen in the regular restocking of stalls by truck and parcel delivery as there is little space for keeping extra stuff in the stalls. There is also the considerable matter of up to 500 busloads of people who arrive each day.

The management of all this – at markets across the country, and largely unseen by visitors – could be described as a minor Christmas miracle in itself.

Stuttgart details

Stuttgart’s market stretches through the heart of the city, open from 10am to 9pm. In Schlossplatz, children can bake, paint glass, ride a steam train around a miniature city, dip fruits into chocolate and decorate gingerbread cookies.

And for parents looking to get a bit of child-free shopping done, check out the free day care on offer at Stuttgart’s city hall, from November 29 to December 22, Wednesday through Fridays from 3pm to 7pm and on Saturdays from noon to 4pm.

In Schillerplatz, visitors will enjoy finding unique, handcrafted products. Across from the town hall, with its window-based annual Advent calendar countdown, shoppers will find everything from toys to slippers. In Karlsplatz, meanwhile, those seeking older treasures will revel in the annual antique market, complete with expert appraisers.

Stuttgart’s market runs this year from November 28 to December 23. For more information click here

Other Christmas markets in Germany

For more The Local’s guide to German Christmas markets, click here. There is also an iphone app “Christmas Markets Germany” available here or for more information on Facebook click here.

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BERLIN

EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

Shops
If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

Leisure
2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

Hairdressers
For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

Transport
3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.

 

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