Bratwurst in Birmingham German Christmas Markets Thrive Despite Great Recession

The Brits usually aren't too thrilled about anything German trying to make its way across the English Channel. But there is one exception. Each year, German Christmas markets take over the downtown pedestrian zones of a growing number of British cities. The biggest one -- and perhaps the biggest one anywhere outside Germany -- is in Birmingham.

By in Birmingham


"Smells good," the man in the gray trench coat says. But is he talking about the Glühwein or the bratwurst? "The mix," he says, as he breathes in the cold winter air -- this matchless "German mix." The city hall of this British metropolis of more than a million people bears a sign with large lit letters reading: "Happy Christmas Birmingham." In front, a German flag is waving, and a yellow pennant flying above the "Knobi Satt" stand promises filling garlic bread.

Each year, dozens of small wooden stands are set up in the pedestrian zone of Birmingham, England. The Frankfurt Christmas Market is imported in toto by container ship from Germany -- bringing a touch of Germany to Victoria Square. You can find Aachener Printen ginger bread treats, Christmas Stollen cakes, nutcrackers, lambskin slippers and wooden toys -- just as you would at the real Frankfurt Christmas Market on the city's Römer square. Glühwein -- which is German for mulled wine -- is even served up in mugs emblazoned with the Christmas market's logo. Heart-shaped Lebkuchen ginger bread hearts are frosted with words like "Schatzi," or "sweetie." The price lists are even written in German. The only difference between a Christmas market here and one back in Germany is that you have to pay in pounds.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Exporting German Christmas Charm

"The English love it," says Sabine Peter, a 47-year-old saleswomen standing in a sea of nutcrackers, Räuchermännchen (hand-carved smoking men from the Ore Mountains of eastern Germany) and Christmas pyramids. The market is so successful that it has grown each year since 2001. With 180 stands and close to 3 million visitors, the city claims it is the largest Christmas market in the world, even surpassing in size Germany's most famous Christmas markets, in Nuremberg and Dresden.

Christmas and Oktoberfest in One

Each December, Manchester, Nottingham, Edinburgh and many other British cities also fall headlong into German Glühwein bliss. In London's Hyde Park, the German Christmas market known as "Winter Wonderland" is just one of many holiday attractions, which also include Santa Land and Zippo's Christmas Circus. Here, the cozy wooden stands bear the traditional features of another popular German export, the Oktoberfest beer tent. Indeed, it's a popular hybrid event outside of Germany.

Nobody knows exactly why German Christmas markets have become such a popular phenomenon in Britain. "I just like the Christmas ambience," says 22-year-old Renee Wo of Hong Kong, a sociology student in Warwick who is visiting the Birmingham market with her boyfriend. Sharon Barlow, a 47-year-old from Hednesford, just tried her first Stollen and claims she has become a true fan. "There are so many things here that you wouldn't otherwise get to see," she says. Diana, a 23-year-old saleswoman from Herbrechtingen, Germany, says people are often astounded by the sheer variety of ginger breads being offered at the market.

Hugh and Janet Durkin, a retired couple, just bought a wooden train for their grandson. Janet says she could probably find one at a toystore, but it's a much nicer experience to buy it at the market. They come each year. "It makes for a nice afternoon walk," says Hugh. Besides, the Glühwein ain't bad, either.

Having beers after work has long been a tradition in Britain, and the fact that you can drink outside at the Christmas market is another reason they have become so popular. Normally, drinking on the street is strictly forbidden, but exceptions are made for the Christmas markets. Large signs at the exits remind visitors that they are leaving the "alcohol sector."

A £67 Million Business

The man who brought Christmas magic to Birmingham is Kurt Stroscher of Tourismus + Congress, the city of Frankfurt's tourism office. Birmingham and Frankfurt are sister cities, and the idea was conceived as a one-off event in 1997. But the response was so strong that the market was established as a regular annual feature in 2001 and thereafter taken to other British cities. At first, there was friction with local businesses in Birmingham, which feared increased competition, recalls Peter, the saleswoman. But local residents started a signature campaign on behalf of the market, and the city stepped in to defend the German newcomer.

Today, the Christmas market does brisk businesss that the city wouldn't risk losing. In 2008, the market had total sales of £67 million ($106 million/€74 million). The Great Recession could put a dent into revenues this year, but the market has still added new stands.

Christmas market organizers say they have received requests to launch markets in other European cities, too. Kevin Byrnes, an Irish entrepreneur, is already thinking about the logistics as he talks amidst the market stands. "We need this in Dublin," he says. "You could make a fortune."

But there is a dark side to the markets as well. Few of the salespeople here are from Germany; most come from Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania. "They are really exploited," says Erika Lemper, a 54-year-old book saleswoman from Cologne who sells ceramics at the market. Vendors have to recoup the expensive costs for renting the stands, and those who operate stands in multiple cities often rely on cheaper laborers from Eastern Europe to increase their profit margins.

Gabriel, a young Romanian has flown in from Bistritz for his six-week stint at the market. Every day, from 10 a.m. until late in the evening, he serves Glühwein before returning to his hotel. For several years now, his parents have been working at the Christmas market in Leeds. When asked how much he is paid, he will only say that, by English standards, it isn't much.

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