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The precarious nature of Christmas markets during COVID

Caitlin Hall

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Traditional Christmas market on Town Hall Square in Tallinn, Estonia

Originally a German tradition, Christmas markets arrived in the UK in 1999 and have been popular with tourists ever since. Most large cities hold their own variation for a few weeks during the festive season, serving mulled wine and delicious food, and giving people the chance to stock up on some last-minute Christmas gifts from boutique traders and independent businesses.


Many Christmas markets were cancelled in 2020, due to the rise in Covid infections and implementation of the regional tier system. This year, a lot of markets have gone ahead, despite the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant and the rapidly-altering rules and restrictions.


The imposition of new restrictions will inevitably impact many industries and sectors, especially hospitality and events, but for something as short-lived and temporary as Christmas markets, even the smallest changes to government guidance could prove disastrous.


Any new measures put in place would likely have a damaging effect on the market, such as travel restrictions, limits on the number of people allowed to visit, or mandatory vaccine passports, but the worst-case scenario would be complete cancellation of the market or a national lockdown.


Stallholders could drop out of events at any minute; they may be required to isolate, for example. In this scenario, the organisers would look to quickly replace them, or risk disappointing visitors if there aren’t enough stalls. Potentially, the entire thing could be called off, and organisers might be obliged to refund the traders their stall fee. This, however, would be devastating to many of the traders—some can earn almost an entire year’s income from their Christmas stalls and market appearances.


In these precarious times, it would be prudent for stallholders to establish alternative income streams, in case the markets they’ve booked into are cancelled; however, most small businesses are still reeling from the lockdowns of 2020/early 2021, and could still be in debt from bounce back loans, etc. There is also the issue that many of the traders sell edible items and perishable food, which, if the market was called off, may need to be thrown away—resulting in even more lost revenue.

Manchester Christmas Market very busy 2021

Manchester Christmas Market - 2021

Manchester Christmas Market very busy 2021

Earlier this year, a few cities, such as Leeds and Bath, announced that their 2021 Christmas markets would not go ahead. These announcements were made when it appeared the Covid situation was under control and when infection numbers were decreasing. We can assume that, for the organisers of these markets, the possibility of increased Covid spread later in the year (as the Omicron variant is currently proving), would lead to further restrictions, and it was therefore a better decision to cancel the markets early than to risk a larger financial loss later in the year if the situation worsened. It seems their forecast was bang on.


Some businesses might be worried about how the Omicron variant, and the developing rules and restrictions, will affect public confidence and consumer habits if the markets go ahead. Hundreds of visitors crowded around stalls like in a tin of sardines, during a pandemic, might put some people off visiting.


Despite these fears, however, it seems that being stuck inside for a year has made people even keener to go out on day trips and to visit local attractions. Lincoln’s Christmas market’s visitor numbers were 15% higher than they were in 2019, before the pandemic. Perhaps, as a seasonal activity, people have been much more eager to visit Christmas markets, given that they were cancelled last year, and fearing that any moment they could be cancelled again. Manchester councillor, Pat Karney, said that markets are ‘making up for lost time’.


Luckily (for the moment), it seems that Christmas markets have escaped cancellation and visitors can still enjoy a cup of mulled wine and a bag of fudge. Tighter restrictions or another lockdown wouldn’t just dampen the spirits of tourists this festive season, it would also be miserable for the independent traders, whose livelihoods depend on the profits they earn from seasonal events like these.

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