Germany’s Christmas markets in limbo as Covid resurges

The mulled wine is brewing and the chestnuts are ready to roast, but with Covid-19 cases soaring the festive season is hanging in the balance for Germany's famous Christmas markets.

A stand at the Darmstadt Christmas market on November 15th.
A stand at the Darmstadt Christmas market on November 15th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

As the government scrambles to respond to a dramatic rise in infections over the past two weeks, some of the traditional markets have already been cancelled while others are still waiting nervously for decisions.

The Striezelmarkt in Dresden, the oldest Christmas market in Germany which draws around three million visitors annually, is due to open on November 22nd.

Stallholders have already built their wooden huts and are busy hanging decorations and assembling wooden figures. But they might have to take it all down again at any moment.

“I can’t describe what we are going through at the moment,” Karin Hantsche, who has been selling traditional gingerbread at the market for 32 years, tells AFP. “We are not sleeping at night, we are so nervous and tense.”

The state of Saxony has said the markets can go ahead, but local authorities in Dresden are due to meet on November 25th and could take a different view.

The central government and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states are also due to meet this week to discuss new national measures.

READ ALSO: German market closures can’t be ruled out, says health expert

Soaring infections

With the country’s 7-day incidence rate striking a new record high for the 10th day in a row on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel described the situation as “dramatic”.

“The fourth wave is hitting our country with full force,” she said. “The number of daily new infections is higher than ever before… and the daily death toll is also frightening.”

The government is expected to agree new restrictions such as limiting large gatherings to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from the disease.

But these rules would be impossible to implement at the Striezelmarkt, which has no perimeter fence or entrance controls.

The Dresden Striezelmarkt being set up earlier in November. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Kahnert

For Hantsche, whose company brings in 50 percent of its income over the Christmas period, the closure of the market would be a disaster.

“Not everyone will survive this, and for me I can’t say yet,” she says.

“We are prepared to immediately lay everyone off again if the pandemic situation requires it. But we need some form of compensation for costs, and at the moment we do not have that.”

Christmas markets have been an annual fixture in Germany since the 15th century, when craftsmen and bakers were given special permission to ply their wares in town squares in the run-up to Christmas.

In pre-pandemic times, the markets drew about 160 million visitors annually and brought in revenues of three to five billion euros ($3.4 billion to $5.6 billion), according to the BSM stallkeepers’ industry association.

But most German cities cancelled their Christmas markets last year as Covid-19 cases began spiralling, despite the financial losses.

Munich on Tuesday became the first major German city to cancel its 2021 Christmas market, with several smaller markets already cancelled across Germany.

Closed stalls in a Christmas market under construction in Munich.
Closed stalls in a Christmas market under construction in Munich. The market has now been cancelled. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

‘Sleepless nights’

Others are still planning to go ahead, but with restrictions: in Leipzig there will be no alcohol, while in Nuremberg, the market will be pared down and split across several locations.

Markus Harich, who has been selling traditional festive mulled wine and other drinks at the Striezelmarkt for 30 years, is busy putting the finishing touches to his wooden hut.

“We are in a very difficult situation at the moment,” he says. “We don’t know what will happen next. Will we open at all? Will the regulations be changed?”

He too has had “sleepless nights” worrying about the future of his business. “The goods are ordered, but nobody is giving us any information… At the moment we have really been left alone in a vacuum.”

READ ALSO: Five of the most magical Christmas markets in Germany

Ulrich Pötschke, who sells traditional artwork from Germany’s Erzgebirge region, spends most of the year preparing for the festive season because “the most important business for us is the Christmas business”.

“We are hearing different news every day about whether the market is taking place, so it is a very, very difficult situation for the traders,” he says.

By Femke Colborne

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German Chancellor Scholz tests positive for Covid after Gulf tour

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has tested positive for the coronavirus and is displaying mild symptoms after returning from a tour of the Gulf, his spokesman said Monday.

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The 64-year-old Social Democrat is isolating in his apartment in the chancellery, and will attend meetings online, spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said.

At the weekend, he visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on a hunt for new energy sources after Russia cut gas supplies amid tensions over the Ukraine war.

He signed a deal Sunday for the UAE to supply natural gas and diesel to Germany.

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Meanwhile Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, also of the SPD, announced via Twitter on Monday that she had tested positive for Covid.