In defence of Birmingham's German Christmas Market

After twenty years Birmingham has changed quite a bit but the market has remained pretty much the same. Here's how we can bring it up to date for 2020.

This year our annual Christmas market celebrates its twentieth anniversary and controversially I still love it. It lends a genuinely jovial and festive atmosphere to the city and is a welcome distraction from the unbearable activity that is Christmas shopping. After twenty years though, it really needs tweaking.

There is a palpable sense of dread on social media at its imminent arrival from late September onwards and it has become popular to vent distaste at the market’s presence. German Market Hipsterism is a rampant snobbery but many also complain about the high price of beer, question the food handling practices and wonder whether any of the stallholders are actually German. It's always busy and its affect on local businesses is regularly the subject of debate. Local journalists write pieces whining about it, although they seem to subsist on whining about everything so their objections probably shouldn't count.

Over the last few years many have become increasingly cynical about the market, asking whether it still adds something to the city each Christmas. Part of the reason for the cynicism is that after twenty years Birmingham has changed quite a bit but the market has remained pretty much the same, only growing and shrinking in response to where building work might get in its way. To rehabilitate and better prepare it for reintroduction into society next year I’ve compiled a list of common complaints about the market and how I think we can address them. With a few changes and a bit of rejigging the market could be as loved again in 2020 as it was when it first arrived in 1999.

“Part of the reason for the cynicism is that after twenty years Birmingham has changed quite a bit but the market has remained pretty much the same, only growing and shrinking in response to where building work might get in its way. ”

“It’s rammed”

Christmas is coming and everyone is heavily invested in the traditions of the season - drinking to keep warm and trying to keep family members you secretly hate on side by bribing them with well chosen and/or expensive gifts. The last thing you want when you leave the Bullring with your shopping bags is to be blockaded by wooden chalets and a throng of people spilling beer and struggling to contain mustard smeared sausages in too-small buns. Choirs of people leaving the world’s largest Primark on Black Friday sing the popular carol “it used to be fun but it’s too commercialised now” without even a whiff of irony.

But love it or loathe it, many people will always want to visit it, which is why it's busy. As a result you could probably put it anywhere inside the middle ring road and people would still make the trip. The market’s ability to draw huge crowds presents an opportunity to fill lesser visited areas with people, so why not take advantage of that and spread it out, moving it to areas of the city centre that ordinarily struggle for footfall? You then redistribute the crowds so that they don’t end up concentrated on New Street.

Scattering the market out can move those crowds to other parts of the city that would welcome them. Return the craft market to Chamberlain Square when it reopens and keep Victoria Square at the market’s heart but scatter New Street’s stalls along its western end only, down Ethel Street and add a few on John Bright Street to better link up with City Social near the Mailbox. Add a few stalls in Alpha Plaza near Alpha Tower and some in Bank Court in the Arena Central development when it reopens because there’s nothing besides offices there. You could put a few stalls in Brindley place, then return some to near the wheel in Centenary Square so as to create a rudimentary loop rather than a straight line. The better connection with Broad Street will also have the benefit of drawing the drunker revellers in its direction.

Alternatively you could experimentally pedestrianise some of the Jewellery Quarter or Floodgate Street in Digbeth and stick the whole thing there, businesses would benefit from the increased footfall with the result that more people who ordinarily wouldn’t have ventured from town-proper over Great Charles Street or down Digbeth High Street will become aware of their existence.

Any other time of the year these people would have gone home several hours ago on a Monday evening.

“It damages local businesses”

This is a contentious one. German Market Hipsters somehow maintain simultaneously that the market fills the city centre with too many people but also starves local businesses of custom.

Twenty years ago when the only place to eat was pizza express - since ruined for its remaining customers by Prince Andrew - the market provided a welcome alternative but now things are very different. The city boasts one of the best independent food scenes in the country; whether you’re looking for Michelin starred fine dining or street food under a railway arch, neither a lack of choice nor price point is prohibitive of finding some decent grub. Partly as a result of the growing attractiveness of ‘city living’ and the ongoing beautification of the city centre, more people now live and work here. This increase in population density can support a thriving ecosystem of more cafes, restaurants and bars than ever before by providing that much needed footfall on their doorsteps.

Indies need footfall and the German Market provides that, but as we have discussed, only in a small area that is always busy anyway. In that sense, it might be true that the market sucks in people from elsewhere but it doesn’t have to be that way; it just means we are not utilising its potential properly.

At a time when you can buy almost anything online, you can’t experience the Christmas Market from your laptop so it will always draw people into the city and without that independent businesses would have far fewer potential customers wandering round. Some of those potential customers will be the stall holders themselves. If you’re fed up of bratwurst after a weekend it’s unlikely that those working on the stalls will be subsisting on it for two months. Creating your very own hostile environment towards the market on social media is unlikely to endear your business to those who work on it. As representatives of our city, if you’re not careful they’ll leave not only with a bad impression but without a real taste of what Birmingham is about.

Many of those who travel into the city centre specifically for the market aren’t going to respond well to passive aggressive alternative lists of things to do either. If you want to advertise something to someone it’s generally not a good marketing tack to mock stuff they like doing because you think what you like doing is better. That is of course unless you’re only pandering to the people who will be avoiding the market anyway and that's not really going generate new business for our independents.

The us vs them narrative seems to preclude or at least pass judgement on those who think that it is entirely possible and indeed enjoyable to do a bit of both.

You can have a quick Weissbeer or two before dinner at Oyster Club, you can have brunch at Medicine before having a mid afternoon red or white sausage on a slightly stale bun.

You can buy a gingerbread heart thing and a Punks and Chancers t-shirt from Hedge as gifts, pop into Faculty for a coffee and cake in the afternoon and then warm yourself in the evening with a hot chocolate topped up with kirsch.

You can visit the Museum and Art Gallery’s new ‘Birmingham Revolutions’ exhibition before getting smashed and losing your deposit on a commemorative beer glass because you accidentally gave the token to the salvation army brass band along with your spare change.

The best part about ditching the unhelpful moralistic guilt trip and advertising things to do WHILE you’re visiting the market rather than as more worthy alternatives is that when the market leaves in January, people you introduced to new places are more likely to visit them all year round. Also there’s something distinctly UKIP-y about the suggestion that foreigners are stealing your business, even if this particular market is very far from being free.

The huge numbers of people milling around offer an opportunity for cooperation too. Talk to the stall holders and ask if they can put up flyers about your events or your business in their huts, talk to them about what you do and where you are so if they fancy a coffee they know where to go.

The council, the German Market organisers, local businesses, Independent Birmingham, the organisers of the JQ Festival, Open Studios, Seasonal Markets and Digbeth Dining club to name but a few need to work with rather than against each other to create something far more special. This is what happens in actual Germany; the markets showcase local crafts and cuisines and promote them to the tourists that visit. If anything we need to make the market more authentic, taking advantage of it to introduce local independents to a much larger audience. Local businesses are already exceptional at doing collaborations with each other and barely a week goes by that there isn’t a ‘so-and-so x such-and-such’ happening, so why not with the German Market? Where the stumbling blocks are on this I do not know, a far more investigative approach into the phenomenon should yield interesting results and I would be keen to better understand the experiences of those who have tried but have been met with resistance.

The annual event is also an opportunity to conduct market research in the most literal sense. From how busy it is it’s clear that Brummies, much like their European counterparts, will happily eat and drink outside no matter how cold it is outside, provided it’s not raining. It’s a shame we don’t have many places where we can do that. Hint hint. That alone shows that widening pavements and creating outdoor spaces for people instead of cars would be hugely popular and local businesses, customers and BIDs should be putting pressure on the council for more pedestrianisation of the city centre, in full knowledge that local businesses will benefit from it.

“It’s expensive”

You got me on this one but it's clearly not so expensive that everyone avoids it. Imagine if there were stalls for local businesses at which you could use your IB card or your My Bull - they’d make a killing.

Crucially it’s voluntary, you don’t have to buy anything if you don’t want to. I appreciate that if you have to walk past it every day for eight weeks it can feel like you’re very much forced to take part. Another reason for splitting it up or spreading it out is that if you want to avoid it you can.

“It’s the same every year and the same market as everywhere else”

This is another reason why local businesses need to be involved. Birmingham was the first city in the UK to have a German Christmas Market and back in 1999 it was new, exciting and unique in the country. Nowadays every city in the UK seems to have one.

We can’t really not have one so we need to make sure that we have the best one. Suggesting that we give it a miss for the year isn't really an option. Our never-ending Brexit nightmare seems to have given us a false sense of our own negotiating power. If we think we can tell the Frankfurt Christmas market to sod off for a year and come back the next how confident are we that they will? We can currently boast that it’s the largest German Christmas market outside of Germany and Austria. It would be embarrassing if another city struck up a partnership in our fallow year that allowed them to take that crown from us. People from all over the country visit it so why are we not capitalising on it to show off our city better?

Adding a more uniquely Brummie feel to the market shouldn’t be too difficult; Brum has practically created the modern British experience of Christmas anyway. Noddy Holder of Slade, who taught us that it's socially acceptable to shout ‘it’s Christmas’ at the top of your lungs at strangers in the street is from up the road in Walsall. The greatest Christmas song of all time, ‘I wish it could be Christmas everyday’ was recorded by Birmingham born glam rock band Wizzard twenty six years before the German Market showed us what that would actually be like. Be careful what you wish for I guess.

Again the opportunities for collaborations are endless; think Lebkuchen hearts with ‘Luv you Bab’ and ‘Have a bostin Chrimbo’ written on them in icing alongside the more traditional ‘Fröhliche Weihnachten’ ones.

"The greatest Christmas song of all time, ‘I wish it could be Christmas everyday’ was recorded by Birmingham born glam rock band Wizzard twenty six years before the German Market showed us what that would actually be like. Be careful what you wish for I guess."

So there you have it, for what it’s worth, how I think we can ensure our German Christmas Market changes its ways for Christmas future.

In these politically divided times, there are people out there who want to scapegoat Europeans for their problems. The narrative of us vs them, of indies vs the market is unhelpful and completely wrong. The German Market should enhance the city and benefit our local businesses and if it doesn’t how it works needs changing. Greater integration is the way forward.

Local Indies and market traders are really on the same side; both are trying to run businesses, do what they love and cobble together a living from it. It wasn’t the market that created the problems local businesses face; they didn’t increase business rates and because they bring their own huts they don’t drive up city centre rents either. We should be working together. Fighting amongst ourselves only plays into the hands of our real enemies - the soulless chains.

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