Christmas Markets, and the Discovery of Beauty

When I first moved to Berlin I learned that there is a dark side to the German character. At this time of year it haunts cosy country cottages and minimalist city apartments. It inveigles itself into the souls of schoolchildren, housewives and politicians. It perverts clear thinking and clutters shop windows. It is a love of… Christmas kitsch.

To me it remains incomprehensible that a people who can design the Porsche 911 and sleek, white ICE trains, who created the Bauhaus and speak at least three languages at birth, want to own miniature wooden figurines, painted in gaudy colours, with flaxen hair, starry skirts and doleful eyes. Every December these cutesy icons spread their carved angel wings across the land, dive-bombing Christmas markets in Cologne, Dresden and even trendy, international Berlin. The markets are enchanting for six-year-old children, but why do adults – from the moment they start sipping mulled wine or munching gingerbread men – completely lose their aesthetic sense and buy these folksy archetypes?

I’m reminded of an erudite and well-travelled Swiss friend who visited me here one Christmas. I took an afternoon off work to show him some of the sights: the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Neues Museum and the East Side Gallery. We walked, talked and picked our way through Berlin’s remarkable history. Did he enjoy himself? Yes. Was the tour complete? No. So what else did he want to see?
‘Now I’d like to go to a Weihnachtsmarkt,’ he announced, and my heart sunk.

Regular readers will recall that my wife loves Berlin’s Christmas markets. Every year she makes a number of purchases which – shall we say — disregards the dictum of English designer and craftsman William Morris that one should ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder and my wife loves the twee, little knick-knacks. But the discovery of her German side started to take us both to some dark and dubious places.

So in my hour of need, with my otherwise astute Swiss friend by my side, I humbly asked her to recommend to us a Christmas market. ‘Gendarmenmarkt,’ she announced without hesitation.

Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. But come Christmas time, the open space is surrendered to star-topped white tents containing stalls from posh Berlin restaurants, busy craftsmen and bustling bars. There’s an enormous Christmas tree and live music on the steps of the Concert House. On sale is every kind of kitsch imaginable. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the organisers extract an entrance fee from visitors. Yes, dear readers, you heard me correctly: shoppers are charged for the pleasure of spending their hard-earned money on seasonal tat. But I am devoted to my friends. I parted with cash. And we stepped into the forested, folksy, frozen Hell.

At first our visit was a trial. I hated the pipe-smoking wooden shepherds and toothy nut-cracking soldiers. The oversized snowmen and lady-bird-bedecked ceramic chimney sweeps turned my stomach. So I turned away from the tacky merchandise, and noticed something truly wonderful. All around me people were smiling. An enchanted middle-aged couple held hands. A young woman’s eyes sparkled as she carefully chose a glittery bauble for her family’s Christmas tree. The real beauty was in their eyes.

‘There is so much kitsch to discover in Germany,’ a friend from Munich once told me. ‘As a newcomer you’ve only seen 10% of it.’ Naturally Germans aren’t alone in having bad taste. The English have retro Teasmades and football teamwear. The Scots have Celtic bookmarks and ceramic Loch Ness monsters. The urban French have their sentimental attachment to the countryside. But what about my Swiss friend? Surely the society which produced Klee, Giacometti and Corbusier would not succumb to such aesthetic poverty. I asked him to explain. And as he carefully chose a small wooden Santa Claus figurine I learned the terrible, dark truth. My friend’s mother was born in Germany.