Christmas and Christmas Markets
— Jörg Rüpke
The basic theological idea of the Christian Christmas is the incarnation of God, the “birthday of the Lord”, as it has been called since the fourth century AD, natalis domini. What the Latin churches celebrate on 25 December, the Eastern churches associate with 6 January, Epiphany, the “Epiphany of the Lord”. You have to delve deep into the philosophy and mythology of the time, think of gods suddenly standing before you, or emperors becoming gods, or souls ultimately guided by a divine spark, to understand Christian dogmas and the battles that were fought over them. None of that should be of interest here. God becomes man, one can summarise the idea. The image for this is the child in the manger.
Today, you can find this image not only in churches, but already in many cities, in public places. But it is only a small part of the transformation of our cities. It is framed, even smothered, by colourfully lit roofs and houses, streets full of roadside inns and shops set up for these weeks, in a word: Christmas markets. You will hardly be able to be in Germany without having walked through them. More and larger Christmas markets are making their mark on the cityscape or town centres of many places in Germany and beyond. People travel from far and wide to visit them. Often in smaller or larger groups, they roam the improvised streets, showing each other discoveries or hiding small purchases from each other. At bratwurst stands or mulled wine huts they stop, eat together and toast each other. At almond roasting shops they draw in scents that they associate with Christmas, in gingerbread bakeries they snack on what only tastes so good at this time of year. It all seems so self-evident that one hardly wants to ask the question: What is actually happening here? How could the manger become a market?
1. Pure urbanity
A first answer is the historical one, or more precisely, the economic-historical one. For the festive preparations, for the increased demand at Christmas after the four- or six-week Lent, for what men and women need to make the festive season special in terms of decoration and culinary delights, the markets, which were thinned out considerably over the winter at weekly intervals or even fewer repetitions, were not sufficient. Since the High Middle Ages, therefore, there have been increasing numbers of “Christmas markets”. These were consumer markets for basic foods and specialised Christmas goods, the unusual spices and ingredients that made Christmas special. That explains the “Christmas markets” – but actually it doesn’t.
The rise of what today constitutes Christmas markets, the setting up of an improvised historical small town on large squares of smaller or larger cities, began when the Christmas supply markets were no longer necessary. In 1907, Edeka was founded, the “Einkaufsgenossenschaft der Kolonialwarenhändler im Halleschen Torbezirk zu Berlin”, and in 1927, Rewe, the “Revisionsverband der Westkauf-Genossenschaften” in the Ruhr area. Broad supply at favourable prices for the entire population of the rapidly growing, indeed proliferating, big cities, even during the Christmas season! And this is precisely the time when Christmas markets begin their triumphant advance, first in German-speaking Europe. Once again, why? Surely not because of the nativity scene! Not because of the Christmas baking!
The answer I would like to develop from a journalistic comment made in recent weeks about the wooden small-town idylls is a different one. It is precisely in the big cities, which massify, de-personalise, and objectify human relationships, that we need to look for an answer. Here, the Christmas market, which has become obsolete in terms of supply, has become a vehicle for creating a counter-image to big-city society. An image that focuses the urban on the interpersonal and non-purposeful. The typical Christmas market designs a city on a human scale. It remains a city – in the multitude of shops, in the façades of town halls and churches, in the division of labour in inns where you don’t have to cook for yourself. But this city is merely a façade, is a backdrop, is a stage for togetherness: members of the same business, associations, clubs, and, of course, circles of friends and families go here to stop. Co-mensality, eating together, is important. What is not important is representation, the marking of social hierarchies. The SUV stays outside, the Christmas hat makes everyone equal, be it equally ridiculous.
The historical backdrop – central to the appeal of Christmas markets, whether in Erfurt or Nuremberg – and the pseudo-historical backdrop of the little houses reinforce the distance to everyday life in the present. Medieval markets, fairytale figures and – not to be forgotten – nativity scenes, the child in the manger, reinforce this. They serve to do what makes towns attractive in other ways, even if often more for visitors than for the inhabitants: they reveal the historical depth of the experience of such a place and extend it into the mythical past and the magical. This makes fellow residents out of strangers, friends out of colleagues, it brings to life that solidarity of the urban that also expresses itself in the support of the otherwise excluded, in Christmas bags and food for the poor, for instance, asking those to “table”, who otherwise have little to eat. At the same time, I suspect, the Christmas townspeople are well aware of the ambivalences of this artificial environment, know that food costs money, you can be robbed, the parking meter expires outside. But they, all of us, can endure these ambivalences and even switch them off for a short time. And remember it that way. A pure urbanity, reducing city life to sociality.
2. Cities unseen
If my assumptions about the Christmas market as the blueprint for an ideal city focused on togetherness are correct, an atmosphere is created at the market that at the same time enraptures us in the hustle and bustle. I find this captured in a well-known poem by Joseph von Eichendorff:
Markt und Straßen stehn verlassen
still erleuchtet jedes Haus,
Sinnend‘ geh ich durch die Gassen,
alles sieht so festlich aus.
An den Fenstern haben Frauen
buntes Spielzeug fromm geschmückt,
Tausend Kindlein stehn und schauen,
sind so wunderstill beglückt.
Und ich wandre aus den Mauern
Bis hinaus ins freie Feld,
Hehres Glänzen, heil’ges Schauern!
Wie so weit und still die Welt!
Sterne hoch die Kreise schlingen,
Aus des Schnees Einsamkeit
Steigt’s wie wunderbares Singen-
O du gnadenreiche Zeit!
Market and streets stand deserted
Every house is quietly lit,
I walk through the alleys contemplating,
Everything looks so festive.
At the windows women have
piously decorated colourful toys,
A thousand little children stand and look,
So wondrously happy.
And I wander out of the walls
Out into the open field,
Glorious glow, holy shiver!
How wide and still the world!
Stars high the circles wind,
From the loneliness of the snow
Rise up like wondrous singing
O merciful time!
The poem dates from 1842 and was originally entitled “Night”, but was eventually given the title “Danzig” (Gdansk). It takes us into the narrow streets of the old Hanseatic city, which was facing enormous challenges after being depopulated in the Napoleonic wars and in the beginning of industrialisation. Night covers these problems, the structural renewal as well as the depopulation: at this time of day the streets are always empty. I imagine the tall and narrow brick gables with windows that look into Biedermeier living rooms whose decorations are just protesting against modernisation. It is not a Christmas market, then, but a shrunken metropolis in the first half of the nineteenth century, undergoing reconstruction, that Eichendorff brings before our eyes. This is not the replica, but the original. But it is precisely because we are so striving for this original through our December city improvisations that the poem may well have become so popular. Eichendorff, however, goes beyond the Christmas market atmosphere – quite literally. The “I” of this poem does not remain in his or her city, but pushes out of it. The “field”, the “world” offer the counter-image. We see Christmas stars and hear angels’ voices, but it is not the manger that appears before our eyes, but the snow. And that brings us back to the Christmas market.
Snow also dominates Advent and Christmas – again: not everywhere, but not only in Germany – at least in the imagination. It, too, does not derive from the biblical Christmas story. What is snow supposed to do? Or more pointedly: what does it cover?
Nothing changes the landscape and cityscape faster, more extensively, if not necessarily more sustainably than snowfall. Yes, it is also a nuisance. Who wants to shovel snow or even sweep it? Who doesn’t hate the damp shoes and dripping soles of shoes behind or outside the door? And yet, no one should doubt that snow is fascinating. Not only for ski riders and city escapees. With snow, “nature” seems to cover up all that is artificial, man-made, that makes up our cities. It is precisely the urban infrastructure, it is the roads, the power lines or telephone lines, in some places also waterways and rail lines, that disappear under the snow or change their appearance altogether. As we all know and some of us may have experienced first-hand, this is not without danger, sometimes even catastrophic. You don’t even have to go to the Ukrainian cities these days to see this. But nevertheless it is fascinating, is – once again: not for Ukrainians without energy supply – “beautiful”. Here, too, I suspect, it is about the attempt to make the city disappear in its dimension of the wheelwork, the economic and administrative machinery. The imagination of the snow cover also reduces the city to the people moving in it. This idea finds expression in such ” beautiful-finding”. It is an urbanity that looks away from reinforced concrete, tarred surfaces and cables and concentrates on people, on feeling comfortable behind walls and under caps, on letting oneself go behind a book or in front of a stage. That too is an ambivalence, a permanent ambiguity that we know about. An ambivalence that we know how to deal with and that we celebrate by giving the one pole a space – at least for a few weeks – and even a priority. By turning city dwellers into people, making the city invisible in the snow – and building those cities in which we feel comfortable. By having Christmas markets. That’s not very theological. It doesn’t even want to be theological. But as a way of putting into practice what Christians mean by the incarnation of God in 21st century cities, I don’t think it’s so bad.
I would like to thank my wife Ulrike Rüpke and my colleague Hartmut Rosa for discussing these theses and supporting me in interpreting the poem.
— Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”.
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