Traditional continental Christmas markets that fill town squares and city centres across the UK will be smaller and less European this year.
Because of the Covid pandemic, 10,000 professional full-time stallholders have left the industry.
Furthermore, Brexit has made it more difficult to import both goods and people into the United Kingdom.
Anja Manke manages the German Christmas Market in Manchester’s St Ann’s Square, which has 23 stalls.
She has been travelling between Bremen and England for over two decades and considers England to be her second home.
This year, however, was different. It took weeks to organise logistics because each product and person involved required permits.
“Usually, we’d just come over and work because we were from one part of the world,” Anja says. “At first, there was a lot of paperwork.”
As a result, she made the difficult decision not to bring a moose-head that normally sits on top of a German beer bar, and she has changed some products, such as using an English company to import German beer.
Overall, there will be fewer European stall holders in Manchester this year. “It’s been excruciatingly painful,” Anja admitted. She believes that many people did not return to the business because they had to live off their savings during the pandemic, and rising Covid rates in Europe made traders nervous.
Anja’s company was registered in England, so she qualified for a bounce-back loan.
And in the run-up to Christmas this year. She has collaborated with European colleagues to share information and navigate the system. “We’ve become like family,” she says.
The BBC contacted a dozen city councils regarding their annual Christmas markets. Only Leeds had cancelled its market and Coventry had swapped theirs for a light installation as part of their year as Capital of Culture.
Manchester and Birmingham are now open, as are Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bournemouth, Oxford, York, Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle, and Exeter. However, almost all have fewer stalls and foot traffic restrictions.
In Belfast, however, the situation is quite different. Its location across the Irish Sea, sharing an EU land border with the Republic, has made transportation and trade easier.
“It’s been really easy for European traders to come to Northern Ireland,” said Allan Hartwell, who runs Market Place Europe in four UK cities.
“It’s the bureaucracy that gets English and Scottish traders here.” Allan’s regular European traders have left England and Scotland. And he’s lost previous English and Scottish traders in Belfast.
Markus Kochem, a self-proclaimed “Mr Riesling” for his festive-favorite glühwein from the Moselle Valley, is one.
It took him ten weeks to get his paperwork in order, and driver and pallet shortages in Germany made things even more difficult.
As a result, Markus opted out of markets in Scotland and instead concentrated on Northern Ireland. “Because this is the backstop, and it’s easier to reach the people,” he explained. “But I’m glad to be here; I’ve missed it.”
As if Brexit wasn’t enough, there are additional constraints.
“In England, Scotland, and Wales, there are three levels of requirement for Covid. It’s been a nightmarish experience, “Allan says
He believes that the entire system is set up for large corporations and does not support smaller independents.
Brexit, Covid, and the loss of 10,000 full-time, professional traders have all harmed the major markets, which operate around the clock.
It is, however, good news for some small-scale events with side-hustle stallholders.
Kelsey Thompson owns and operates Henigan’s Bar on Bolton’s outskirts. She decided to hold an early-evening market in the pub to increase foot traffic on slow days.
“We’re having a Christmas decoration party with the entire staff to get everything ready,” she says.
Kelsey was blown away by the number of locals who applied to have a stall, which means she’ll be able to offer “all sorts from resin gifts, candles, [to] novelty earrings.”
Emma Simpson, a local parent, began bottling sweet gifts as a hobby.
“I’ve committed to two Mondays here in December, as well as two more at the local cricket club,” she says. “I’ve had to order a lot more to keep up with orders. My kitchen is overflowing with boxes!”
Emma believes that smaller markets will do well this holiday season. “This year, many people want to keep things close to home. It’s ideal for me, and I thoroughly enjoy it.”
Everyone the BBC spoke to – Anja, Allan, Markus, Kelsey, and Emma – had one thing in common: a love of Christmas and a strong desire to make 2021 extra special.
The level of enthusiasm for their markets, big or small, has surprised and reassured them all.