Let’s just come right out with it: It’s hard to beat Christmas in Germany. Glühwein, cookies, classic lights, decorations strewn across homes and street corners, a calendarthat expects, nay, requires you eat a chocolate per day… it’s simply wonderful. Though I grew up in the US, my family celebrated Christmas the Teutonic way. I have more than fond memories of hiding the Buttergebäck and Lebkuchen in the laundry room from our Opa so he wouldn’t devour them in one sitting, ripping open a human-size Adventskalendar in the course of one night made by our Oma, and relishing the torture of opening presents one-by-one on Christmas Eve under the illuminated Tannenbaum.
The only thing that was missing on our side of the Atlantic – and perhaps the pinnacle of Germany’s Christmas genius – was the Weihnachtsmarkt. The magical, cheerful Christmas market that makes it socially acceptable to go for a Glühwein at lunch with colleagues and eat your weight in candied almonds and those heart-shaped cinnamon cookie necklaces with cheesy phrases on them (ok, no one actually eats the cookie necklaces). The Christmas market that is part amusement park, part shopping center, part bar, part concert, part house of worship. The Christmas market that makes standing outside for hours in winter a desirable activity.
But Christmas markets aren’t all about empty calories, booze, and decorations. They’re also not just there for music, gift shopping, and family/friend time. And – hear me out – they’re not just about religion on either end of the purely-Christian-to-overly-PC-spectrum. In its truest sense, a market is a space for community gathering, exchange, and learning. Which is why when I travel, the market is the first place I turn to for an inside look at a different culture and way of life. A Christmas market can be a place for opportunity as much as it is a place for celebration, regardless of religion, background, gender, age, or anything else. And like Kelly wrote this past summer, it’s about showing up.
Of course Christmas markets come in all shapes and sizes and with varying levels of kitsch and educational potential. In Berlin, there are the über-commercial markets at all major tourists points throughout the city that focus on food and fun: Alexanderplatz, Zoo, Potsdamer Platz. For those who want to class it up a bit, there’s Gendarmenmarkt and Schloss Charlottenburg. For a smaller-town feel, and if you’re willing to make the trek outside the Ring, there’s Spandau. There are even themed markets, like the Designmarket and Swedish Christmas Market. There is certainly something for everyone, but I’ve only been to one Christmas market in Berlin that feels truly modern in its inclusion of everyone, and that’s the Alt-Rixdorfer Market in Neukölln.
Funnily enough, the Alt-Rixdorfer market is more about the past than the future. Alt means “old” and is a nod to the neighborhood’s history which is played out with petroleum lighting, young men acting as the “town crier” with old-fashioned megaphones, and pony rides. Rixdorf has a long and proud history as a Protestant bohemian refugee settlement from the 1700s and retains its old-fashioned and quaint feel to this day. Its identity is more that of small village than city neighborhood, especially when juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of Karl-Marx Strasse around the corner.
But besides these touches of years ago, besides the ubiquitous pork products, candied apples, and singing, the Alt-Rixdorfer market offers something different. The stands are primarily run by local clubs, organizations, and charity groups who display and sell homemade wares, whip up international culinary delights, and advocate for their respective causes. And while the market is still predominantly Christian in framework, it’s not necessarily Christian in purpose. From where I was standing – bundled up and elbow-to-elbow with young families, Turkish and Arab youth, homosexual couples, a trail of wheelchairs, and my international friends – the purpose was inclusion, diversity, and participation. Crawling amongst the hoards from stand to stand, I learned about district issues, was served by special needs residents, bought a handmade card with a Hamsa on it, munched on Korean fried veggies, and watched kids run around proudly to keep the petroleum lights ablaze. What a more meaningful experience than the usual attempt at diversifying such an event: a Dreidel in one corner and Döner stand in the other with everything else green, red, and factory produced inbetween.
“Inclusion” is a hot topic these days in Berlin, Germany, and beyond. Yet when it comes to who needs inclusion and where, people and politics tend to focus on “special needs students” and “the school”. What about the open Iftar dinner, woman led neighborhood tour, public gallery, baseball field, and Christmas market? These are also shared community spaces that can promote inclusion of all residents through interaction, learning, and participation. The Alt-Rixdorfer Market shows us that a small effort to include the entire neighborhood can not only make cold feel warm and old feel new, but make Christmas about community.
– By Sophia Burton
The Alt-Rixdorfer Christmas market takes place in Neukölln’s Richardplatz annually on the 2. Advent (usually the first or second weekend of December).