Christmas Markets Celebrate in a New Reality

The time has finally come to return to the Christmas markets in Switzerland after the distressing and confining years of the coronavirus pandemic (in 2020 the events were completely cancelled). The risk of COVID-19 is not entirely over, but it is already safe enough to travel. The festivity of Christmas markets in Zürich seemed this year (2022) almost back to normal, that is as in the Advent Periods of 2018 and 2019. But it was not all quite the same; if a visitor observed carefully, one could discern some changes. The energy crisis looming in Europe, brought about as a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine War, appeared to have a greater impact on the celebrations than concerns due to COVID-19. Nonetheless, the Christmas markets were lively and swarming with visitors, not letting anything spoil the seasonal festivity.

The Christmas markets in Zürich were largely in place this season as found in 2018 (‘Festivity in Christmas Markets‘ in this blogsite). Many of the features of the markets were also present. The markets combine stalls offering merchandise, food and drinks. In principle, priority is given to merchandise of local Swiss produce or handicraft. In food and drinks, one could find, however, delicacies and flavours from different cuisines, Swiss and non-Swiss (e.g., French, American, Asian).

The Christmas Village (Wienachstdorf) in front of the Opera House (Sechselautenplatz) by the Zürich Lake still looks and feels like the fuzziest, possibly merriest, Christmas market. It is a rich and cheerful marketplace in open (cold) air. In its centre stood a colourful-lit Christmas tree. In addition to the stalls offering food and drinks, the market exhibited the Fondue Chalet. A real treat of the traditional Swiss cheese fondue delicacy was served inside the wooden chalet-like house (the caterer, previously from Klosters, seemingly has been replaced). Swiss cheese raclette was served in a balcony on top of the chalet. There were several seating areas, some roofed, and a large ‘pub’ tent that was particularly busy, like hosting an on-going party.

The feature most notably missing from the Wienachstdorf this year was the large ice skating rink. This could be one of the sacrifices that had to be made for reducing the risk of contracting the coronavirus (the place was relatively more crowded and could involve more physical contact). Traders at the Christmas Village took another remarkable measure of not accepting cash and dealing only with payment cards or mobile apps (i.e., customers could transact their purchases without human contact with traders). The measure was taken, as explained by a trader, as a coronavirus precaution following the pandemic tougher period. Exceptions were hard to find (e.g., willing to take cash but not returning change). There could be other reasons for making these changes such as convenience (e.g., in handling payments) and economic (cost) issues. It should be noted that the market-village seemed otherwise full of visitors invested in action, browsing and buying merchandise (e.g., winter accessories, Christmas decorations), consuming food and drinks.

The indoors Christkindlimarkt, located in the large hall of the Central Railway Station (Hauptbahnhof), might be larger by number of stalls and busier than the Wienachstdorf, but the atmosphere in the former does not feel as pleasant and cheerful as in the latter. The crystal sparkling Swarovski Tree is still on site but without the shop that surrounded it (the retailer also moved its store opposite the railway station to a new location on the main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse). Expansive construction works at the station currently give the market space an even more crowded feeling.

In the Bahnhofstrasse and its surrounding areas one could find more clusters of Christmas stalls. In particular, a minor market operated as before in a square next to the main street, at Werdmühleplatz, with the Singing Christmas Tree as its focal feature. The tree is not just an exhibit but a multi-level-terrace for hosting merry performances of children choirs singing Christmas songs from different times (e.g., White Christmas — Bing Crosby, Do They Know It’s Christmas — Band Aid, Last Christmas — George Michael, Happy Christmas (War Is Over) — John Lennon), and some more traditional songs (most notably Stille Nacht). These performances usually attracted large gatherings of spectators to the marketplace.

Small Christmas markets could be found in quarters of the Old Town on both sides of the Limmat river. One of the markets was located in the Niederdorf quarter around the Grossmünster church, on the hillside bank of the Limmat and overlooking the river from above. It is a nice and rather calmer market, but close to a lively nightlife entertainment area with restaurants and bars. Another, relatively newer market (added in 2019), the Münsterhof market, operated in an open place next to the Fraumünster church. One can think of it as a ‘mini-cosmos’ of the Christmas Village near the Opera House and Bellevue. This market included stalls of merchandise, food and drinks of different types and flavours, plus a bar-tent. But foremost, the Münsterhof market featured a culture tent that hosted live music performances of various genres and other culturally-oriented events (e.g., readings, creative workshops for children and adults). It is a lovely, more neighbourly market, yet just a ten minutes walk from the Village.

All the markets are adjacent to permanent shopping areas, whether in the centre of the city, the Bellevue place, or both flanks of the Old Town (i.e., in and around Niederdorf or Münsterhof). Together, the shops and markets make up active hubs full of life to celebrate the Christmas atmosphere (even if one is not a follower of the Christian faith). Each market offers a somewhat different experience, in atmosphere, variety of offerings, or special focal features. Christmas markets are in vicinity to shops and stores, so they build together kind of ‘networked’ retail and entertainment environs; another important advantage is that most markets are in walking distance from each other (e.g., 5-15 minutes from one market to the next).

For a few days, snowfall, which created some ‘ponds’ and light covers of snow, added to the atmosphere, and compensated for the freezing cold air (Wienachstdorf near Bellevue)
  • The city of Luzern (Lucerne) hosts two primary markets, close to each other, on weekends. They are of similar nature to those in Zürich, exhibiting stalls of variant merchandise, food and drinks. While not including the more developed features, these markets were busy and entertaining as well.

There are scarcely visible signs to remind a visitor of the presence of the coronavirus. People are rarely seen wearing protective masks. Dispensers of hand senitizing gel are still installed for public use in some indoors retail and service establishments, but they were not seen in Christmas market areas. If there are remaining concerns about COVID-19, indications of them are rather covert. Instead, there were much more visible signs of the effect of attempts to save on electricity around the city. The markets this year closed down earlier in the evening (between 21:30 and 22:00), apparently for saving electricity on lights and facilities. Similarly, Christmas lights around the city centre were turned off also at 22:00, and landmark public buildings (e.g., the two major churches, tower clocks), were not lit after sunset as in previous years.

These measures, invoked by rising electricity tariffs and concerns about worsening shortages in energy supply, make an impact: they sadly leave notable parts of the city landscape darkened in the evenings, and may curtail somewhat the Christmas festivity, but only at the margin. It is unfortunate, but apparently an essential consequence of the unusual reality experienced all over Europe. Still, during most of the day, from around noon, the markets were happy and swarming with visitors as before the pandemic.

  • Note: The median tariff for kilowatt per hour (kWh) in Switzerland rose 3.3% in 2022 on 2021 (the Russia-Ukraine crisis started in February 2022, just beginning to show its effect on energy costs, when compared with annual changes during 2018-2021). The tariff in Zürich has only slightly increased in 2022 (0.2% to 21.50 CHF cents, thus its gap from median across-country tariff, 21.16c, narrowed). However, the more significant increases, even dramatic in some cantons and districts, are expected to occur in upcoming 2023. Zürich is going to see a ‘mild’ increase of 4.1% (to 22.39 CHF cents); yet the countrywide median tariff could rise by as much as 28.5% to a level of 27.20 CHF cents (e.g., Basel 12%, Luzern 33%, Locarno 18%, Lausanne 26%, Interlaken 52% — tariffs for 2023 may not be final). [ELCom, Swiss federal electricity price regulator, total standard household tariff kWh, viewed 21 December 2022.]

The Christmas markets in Zürich look and feel like a merry go round, and the city overall seems to enjoy from the atmosphere they create. Which is the merriest market? I suggest three merry contenders: Wienachstdorf is the leading and large Christmas Village near the Opera House, but it is closely followed by the cosy yet lively Münsterhof market and the market in Werdmühleplatz, primarily in virtue of the Singing Christmas Tree. The Swiss do not appear ready to let anything (e.g., COVID-19, energy costs, cold weather) interrupt their celebrations in a Christmas spirit. It only remains to keep hope that the festivity can resume even more fully in coming years.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

One thought on “Christmas Markets Celebrate in a New Reality

  1. Daniel Rainer

    Excellent article! on the one hand, highly informative; on the other hand it made me feel as if I were myself in Switzerland, visiting the Christmas Markets scene.

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