A Victorian affair: Christmas markets in Britain

Last weekend, I finally had the opportunity to see if the reality of continental Christmas markets matches the image I have of them in my head.
I had imagined bratwurst, gingerbread and mulled wine, each handed over with a bearded Flemish gentleman. I had pictured ice-skating and a choir of angel-faced German schoolboys singing ‘O Tannenbaum’ on repeat in the town square.
So, joined by my family, I boarded the Eurostar at some horrendous hour of the morning, and made the trip to Belgium.
I have made a short film about our adventures:
This little trip inspired me to find a bit more about Christmas markets in my own country. Are we still hopelessly indebted to Teutonic traditions, or has Britain managed to put its own stamp onto one of Christmas’s most delightful imports?

A brief history of Christmas markets

Christmas markets, or Christkindlmarkt, have been a feature of the festive season in German-speaking parts of Europe since medieval times. Dresden hosts one of the oldest markets, which dates back to 1434.
The markets usually took place around the city’s main church, with the idea that this would bring the devout to the stalls. However, by the 17th century, these markets had become so popular that, in 1616, a priest in Nürnberg complained that no one was attending his afternoon service on Christmas Eve.
The British finally got a proper taste of this tradition in 2001, when Frankfurter Kurt Stroscher was tasked with marketing his home city abroad. A company of German stallholders crossed the channel and set up for business in Birmingham. Initially intended as a one-off, the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market was met with such enthusiasm that it now takes place every year.

Shopping 19th century style

The penchant for continental markets has continued. Along with the original Birmingham market, market-goers can now visit the Newcastle Continental Christmas Market, Glasgow Christmas Continental Market and Leeds Christkindlmarkt among others.
That is not to say, however, that the British contribution towards the world of Christmas markets remains hopelessly derivative of the German’s. So we may have “borrowed” the concept of the Christkindlmarkt, but, let’s face it, stealing from the Germans is basically a Christmas tradition in itself these days – we’ve appropriated several of our most popular carols, nutcrackers, and, most unsubtly of all, the Christmas tree.
The British tradition of stealing German traditions all began with Prince Albert, Victoria's German husband. This picture of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree was printed in the Illustrated London News in 1848.

The British tradition of stealing German traditions all began with Prince Albert, Victoria’s German husband. This picture of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree was printed in the Illustrated London News in 1848.

There is, however, one Christmas tradition that remains distinctively British: Charles Dickens. The author of A Christmas Carol has been channelled into almost every aspect of our Yuletide celebrations, and not a festive season goes by when there is not some new adaptation of his novels.
Last year there was a deluge of Dickens with the BBC miniseries The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, broadcast throughout the second half of December, which parodied a number of Dickens novels. This year, a movie version of Great Expectations has been timed to coincide with the Christmas season, because nothing fills you with glad tidings of comfort and joy more than a jilted woman in a decaying wedding dress.
As such, the Victorians, otherwise perceived as a fairly humorless bunch, have become synonymous with festive cheer. This is reflected in this year’s Christmas markets, where the Victorian period is adopted as a theme with growing frequency.
Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol.

Ruth Wakeling, who set up the Melton Mowbray Victorian Fayre, said that her choice of theme was “something different” to all the other markets out there when it first began nine years ago, but that now Victorian markets have eclipsed continental markets in popularity.
She added: “The Victorian period and Christmas seem to go together. It adds a nice feel to the town, and I think the costumes contribute.”

But where, dear fellow, may I buy my goose?

Dickensian markets this year include Rochester’s Dickensian Christmas and Ulverston Dickensian Christmas Festival.
There is also a great deal of markets under the broader Victorian theme. On Saturday 8th December, Leominster will be holding a Victorian Christmas Market, where stallholders will be dressed in Victorian costume. Wrexham has its Victorian Christmas Market until the 13th, and Chester’s runs right up until the 24th.
Caerphilly is breaking the mould somewhat by running a medieval market. Personally, I’d like to see a reenactment of a mid-1600s Christmas market, during which Christmas was banned. Imagine having to hide all those turkeys each time someone in uniform walked past…

British victuals

On a practical level, focusing on the British side of things allows vendors to sell their own produce. This means the markets remain sustainable and ethical, supporting the local economy, rather than transporting stollen halfway across the continent.
Welsh liqueurs being sold at the Cardiff Christmas Market.

Welsh liqueurs being sold at the Cardiff Christmas Market.

I spoke to Claire Weeks at Cardiff Christmas Market about her independent company Random Vintage, and how things are going at her stall this season.
Claire was selling the following lovely products, some of which definitely had an Old Curiosity Shop feel to them…

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So you can tell Tiny Tim I most certainly will be home this Christmas. And I will probably be dressed as a Victorian.
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One Response to A Victorian affair: Christmas markets in Britain

  1. Jen says:

    A fascinating look at the origins of Christmas tradition, though I’m not sure why you were imagining buying bearded men. Slavery is still illegal on the continent you know!

    “I had imagined bratwurst, gingerbread and mulled wine, each handed over with a bearded Flemish gentleman”

    I didn’t know that historical markets were so prevalent but they sound like lots of fun. I wonder if they will sell doormice and mutton at the Medieval market?

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