Can we reinvent a traditional ‘British’ Christmas market?

I was born and raised in a market town so I know a thing or two about markets. I readily admit that my fondness for them these days, especially at Christmas, is based on nostalgia. A past time when busy, weekly markets were the heart of local trading and reflected the seasonal changes and festivals. But those days are long gone and now, at this time of year, my heart sinks at the proliferation of markets, comprising trademark wooden alpine cabins of all sizes, being set up in towns and cities where thereĀ used to be a traditional British market, and even where there had never been a market before. Like so many of our Christmas ‘traditions’ , such markets are, of course, German imports.

My hometown in Lincolnshire had busy outdoor and indoor markets twice a week, where farmers from miles around sold their dairy, meat, vegetable and fruit produce alongside fish fresh from the North Sea fleets, and all manner of other traders selling everything from clothes, shoes and leather goods to toys, small domestic pets (The Budgie Man) and the creamiest homemade ice-cream. I didn’t just know this market as a customer but also as a teenage Saturday girl on one of the large fruit and vegetable stalls. I developed biceps from lifting and throwing sacks of root vegetables and crates of fruit from the back of a lorry to those waiting below to set up the displays. And at Christmastime, the usual noise and colour was magnified twice over by the seasonal additions of coloured fairy lights, spray on frost, carol singers, brass bands and the sale of hot roasted chestnuts, boughs of holly, mistletoe, Christmas trees, wreaths, garlands and glass baubles. Not to mention the giant turkeys plucked fresh from the farms. But now we can get all of that from a supermarket, department store or online, which has contributed to the decline of our street market culture, not just at Christmas but all year round.

Gainsborough market in it’s heyday

In recent years, the traditional German Christmas markets have become popular tourist attractions. I can understand the novelty of distinctive looking alpine stalls selling gluehwein, foot long bratwurst hotdogs and wooden nativity characters and scenes – for a one-off visit. Because there’s little else to it unless you add a balloon seller and a mulled cider stall. The Germans, seeing the demise of our market traditions in contrast with the popularity of their markets with British tourists, also saw an export opportunity, and cannily brought their traditions over to us once a year. As I mentioned earlier, they’ve done it beforeĀ  – or rather Prince Albert did. However, what I object to is a wholesale takeover, such as we now have in Birmingham every year when the traditional German market winds through the squares and streets of the entire city centre!

A stall at the German market in Birmingham 2017

I know that there are some regular Christmas markets that haven’t been taken over by the German model. The one in my old county town of Lincoln, and in Leamington where I live now are good examples. And the recent resurgence of farmers and craft markets appear to express a need for something that is not uniform and mass-produced, but that acknowledges tradition and the modern world alongside each other. There is no reason why a British Christmas market shouldn’t thrive again if it could redefine itself in the same vein, reflecting inclusive British traditions that truly reflect the people who live in the area, of every ethnic origin. And at Christmas, instead of selling gluehwein and bratwurst, stalls should sell spice mulled wine and turkey and cranberry batches alongside, for example, Polish plum vodka and spicy festive samosas.

Christine Ingall

8 December 2019