I fell in love with Germany, or Bavaria anyway, in December 1989. The now-defunct German GQ magazine brought me from the states for an interview over my highly controversial AIDS writings. I stayed in a first-class Munich hotel and was wined and dined on the best food and beer I had ever had — in contrast to my indefinite unemployment in the U.S. for the same writings. On my last day, there was a free one. I made a short walk to the famous Marienplatz with its amazing three cathedrals and incredible Glockenspiel. And then I espied one beautifully decorated booth. Then another. Then another. It was Munich’s biggest Christmas Market, or Weihnachtsmärkte. Each booth sold wonderful “street” foods like wurst or hot spiced wine (Glühwein) or small objects like Christmas ornaments or nutcrackers. Then it began to snow. OMG! Brothers Grimm without the witches!
As a result, I learned what Mark Twain in his famous essay called “The Awful German Language” and went back about a dozen years in a row.
The Weihnachtsmärkte (literally “Christmas Eve Markets, called Christkindlmärkte in Bavaria) [NB, I know that looks like “Christchildmarket” but that’s an improper translation and I don’t want to get bogged down in translations so let’s just let people believe what they want. The “Christkindl” is actually a girl!] are generally open from late November through the end of the year and emphasize tradition. While any German town of any size now hosts one, in some cities they go back to the Middle Ages. They are so important to Germanic tradition that I’m guessing they stayed open during waves of the awful bubonic plague, though Hitler closed them during the war as a symbol of frivolity while conquering the world. But, hey, a disease that kills about 1 percent of those afflicted, and then pretty much only if they have several other illnesses — well, this is an emergency the likes of which the Teutons have obviously never seen.
It was thus with a heavy heart that I learned that Bavaria and its neighboring state of Saxony (which includes Dresden) were closing their Märkte for the second straight year despite having begun COVID vaccinations 10 months earlier.
Does Bavaria have a relatively high number of cases? Yes. In the last week as of this writing, it has had a higher case rate per capita than any other federal state except Saxony and one other. And as it happens, Bavaria also has a remarkably low vaccination rate at about 42 percent fully vaccinated versus 68 percent for the country as a whole, and 79 percent for the federal state of Bremen. Saxony has the lowest rate in the entire nation.
Although it may upset some readers to hear it, as I’ve documented on this site there’s a clear correlation between COVID vaccination rates and cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. This isn’t the place to get into civil rights issues over vaccinations.
But stop with the usual “We’re being overrun Scheiße!” (crap). It’s like Star Trek’s Scotty saying “She kinna take anymore, Kiptin! She’ll shake apart!” But somehow, the Enterprise always survived and ultimately Scotty admitted that he always exaggerated the crises to make himself look “like a miracle worker.”
So too, here. And pretty much everywhere. Health care systems seem always on the edge of “shaking apart” from a flood of COVID patients but somehow are always saved by a miracle. So maybe only half of Bavaria’s population remains unvaccinated, but by golly that’s one-half more than last year and somehow the federal state didn’t “shake apart” then.
But back to my beloved Weihnachtsmärkte. It seems rather obvious that by pulling people out of their buttoned-up homes they’re almost certainly lowering infection rates. You don’t enter the booths. You stand outside to gawk, buy, eat, and drink. Yes, there’s one famous chain called Käthe Wohlfahrt that allows you to come in but it’s the exception. Require vaccination cards and a swab test to enter, okay?
Second, it’s frigging cold. No, not for just a few minutes, but chances are you’ll be outside for hours. My ex-wife and I used to wrap in so many layers we were like Russian nesting dolls. Wearing a mask is no great discomfort, given you probably already have a scarf there.
For five crucial weeks a year, the Weihnachtsmärkte give Germans a reason to unhuddle around a toasty fire and go out for a while. No, it’s hardly just for tourists. They sell numerous everyday items such as gloves and hats and many booths are outdoor eateries and bars. Nothing beats talking with friends while drinking hot mulled (spiced) wine.
Meanwhile, the economic impact of two years of closures must be terrible and felt far outside the markets. Most of the toys and ornaments come from the Erzgebirge area of Saxony. Aside from some lathes, everything is hand-carved and hand-painted. It’s as close to Santa’s workshop as you’ll ever get. And those poor elves are now being slammed for the second year in a row. Who knows if they might just quit and abandon those skills? It’s not like temporarily shutting down a Taiwanese chip factory.
And lots of foreign tourists come only for the markets, including ultimately me and my now ex-wife. Basically, German weather sucks; we spent three weeks there in August and called it “The summer without Sun.” (I have written elsewhere on the folly of German “solar farms.”) So we decided that rather than coming in summer and hoping for a glimpse of the sun, we would only come in December, with guaranteed cold, crisp weather and falling snow highly probable.
Since my original “discovery,” lots of “Christmas Market” tours have sprung up. But they usually have as their heart … Bavaria. When you think of storybook Germany, you’re either thinking of a picture of a tiny area in Frankfurt called the Römerplatz, restored after the city was bombed flat, or you’re thinking of Bavaria. Munich’s Marienplatz is the most beautiful market to my mind, while the most famous German picture postcard medieval town of Rothenberg ob der Tauber is also Bavarian. King Ludwig’s famous castle that Disney used as his model? Right, Bavaria. But nobody visits the German state in winter just to see the castle; it’s usually part of a Christmas Market Tour.
Bavaria also has the best beer in Germany (and highest consumption), best beerhalls, and the nicest people. Southern Germans often consider northern ones stiff “stocksteif” — grumpy. Which, perhaps because of the weather, they kind of are. I once got yelled at by an old crone in a Hamburg tourist shop (meaning a foreign clientele) for kissing my wife on the cheek! Bavaria, conversely, is the land of Gemütlichkeit, essentially a feeling of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Imagine yourself sitting in a large German beer hall at a huge table mixed in with strangers, with a two-liter mug of wonderful home-brewed beer in front of you. (Yeah, you can order local white wine…) To me Germany is Bavaria and everywhere else is somewhere else.
(By the way, Munich has been called “The Birthplace of Nazism” but just heretofore it had been communist and it was also home of the only internal peaceful German Nazi resistance: the White Rose. Long before it had resisted joining Bismarck’s Prussian-led confederation, forcing him to grant it permanent special concessions. It was Prussia’s “military-industrial complex” that used one war against France to unify the country and then led that country into both World Wars I and II. Basically, Bavarians go their own way.)
True, you can still go to markets in other Germanic areas except — whoops — Austria has announced a hard lockdown of the entire country, and the German federal government has warned it may follow. And that was before Omicron. Meanwhile, now only Germans with vaccinations can go to the markets (and lots of other places). As of Sunday, the country has added several neighboring nations to the list of those who have to quarantine for 10 days upon entry and … well, the markets everywhere are dying the death of a thousand cuts.
As an American, thanks to a proliferation of knock-offs in recent years, you can visit a “Christmas Market” in many U.S. cities, but those I’ve gone to have only made me miss the real thing — like an American bottled beer with a German name compared to a mug of Bavarian beer brewed according to the traditional Reinheitsgebot law.
So with all this in mind, why close the markets outright or essentially push them into another year of hibernation?
Yes, Germans are a smart people — especially when they speak English with a Henry Kissinger accent. But smart people can become hysterical, too. (So ya really thought you could defeat the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States while propping up hapless Italy, eh?) Germany is currently shuttering the last of their 26 superbly built nuclear reactors because, you see, in 2011 one of the largest tsunamis in history swamped three Japanese coastal nuclear plants and allegedly caused one (1) death from post-meltdown radiation while the actual tsunami killed over 18,500. And you never know when Germany will get hit by a tsunami!
Bavarians specifically have some strange health beliefs, including that winds that blow down the mountains (Föhn) cause an incredible array of illnesses, including injuries. (It’s published and peer-reviewed, so it must be true!)
But one rule that seems almost universal is that anything fun spreads COVID. Yes, Puritanism as antidote. The Märkte are as fun as you get in Bavaria if you don’t count getting drunk and puking for two weeks during Octoberfest, so there you go!
Gemütlichkeit apparently spreads COVID.
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