An unsually calm Lübeck Christmas market | DW Travel | DW

The smell of mulled wine and roasted almonds wafts through the air. Merchants sell fur hats, colorful puppets and artfully crafted wooden toys. Strings of lights shine brighter than a starry sky. It almost seems like business as usual in Lübeck, the self-proclaimed “Christmas City of the North,” where the traditional Christmas market is taking place after a year’s break due to the pandemic. And yet there are many differences this year in the markets of the Hanseatic city’s old town. “2G,” is the rule of the day, which means anyone wishing to attend the traditional Christmas markets must show their vaccination or recovery certificate and ID card.

A colorful ferris wheel and stalls in a courtyard between buildings in Lübeck.

There were fewer crowds than expected in late November at markets in the old town of Lübeck

Don’t forget a mask

“Better this way than not at all,” says one visitor. Another is critical of the regulations. “Why do I have to show my vaccination card everywhere,” he asks. “That’s why it’s so empty here.”

Anyone arriving at the parking garage near the old town is reminded of the obligation to wear masks. The city’s public order officers carry out checks. Signs playfully called “wishlists” hang outside the market entrances, reminding visitors of the pandemic-related regulations. 

Nevertheless, the people in this northern German town don’t let the measures dampen their Christmas spirit. Many families can be seen out and about on the first day of Advent, November 28. Northern Germany’s largest and most traditional Christmas market has a tranquil ambiance, in part due to the rainy and cold weather. The feared rush of visitors has failed to materialize.

A line outside the entrance to a market in Lübeck.

A line formed outside of the entrance to a market in Lübeck as people wait to have their documents checked

“The bad weather plays into it,” explains Doris Schütz of the Lübeck-Travemünde marketing company. Due to the pandemic, city officials are keen to prevent crowds from forming.  While in the south and east of Germany, large traditional markets were canceled, those in Lübeck opened as planned on November 22.

A total of eleven locations in the historic old town welcome visitors this year, including the Maritime Christmas market, an arts and crafts market, and others offering traditional mulled wine, plenty of culinary delights and gift stands galore.

The pandemic-related precautions are taken seriously. After a vendor at St. Jacob’s church tested positive for COVID-19, the market there closed early.

A long tradition

The first documented mention of a Lübeck Christmas market dates back to 1648. At the time, the wooden huts belonging to merchants and craftsmen were already located in the central market square at the town hall. Later, sales were also allowed in the surrounding markets and alleys. Until the end of the 19th century, the city’s Christmas market was mainly characterized by craftsmen selling their products, as well as by cake bakers and traveling musicians.

Lights hang from the sky over stalls at a Lübeck Christmas market.

Some markets had fewer stalls to avoid overcrowding

Lübeck’s popular Christmas markets, which typically attract 2 million guests to the Baltic Sea area, are likely to be much less lucrative this year for vendors. “There were significantly fewer visitors here on the first Advent weekend,” says Doris Schütz.

Perhaps it was the fear of impending closure: Lübeck’s mayor, Jan Lindenau, warned on the first market weekend that the markets may not remain open all season. “We are observing and re-evaluating the situation on a daily basis. If the infection figures continue to rise significantly, we will also consider short-term partial closures or cancellation of the Christmas markets,” he said.

Two women in a stall filled with colorful puppets

Simone Heinz sells her hand puppets at a stall in the market

Avoiding the crowds

Some vendors had also canceled — one could observe empty spaces where booths might have otherwise been. The extra space has also helped avoid crowding. “Nevertheless, we have only a few stands less than usual at the town hall,” says Doris Schütz.

As usual, there are additional sales booths on nearby Breite Straße, outside of the main market areas, which are freely accessible and do not follow the “2G” rule.

Here, Simone Heinz from Hamburg sells hand puppets at her stall. Next to her, a booth sells silver jewelry, and from across the street, the smell of Hungarian dumplings wafts through the air, attracting a line of hungry patrons. Heinz is satisfied with the location of her booth. “We have a good crowd because we are not in the fenced-in area,” the trader says.

Her colorful puppet named “Violettchen” — which she brings to life with a clear voice, despite wearing a mask — attracts a group of onlookers. For the past several years, she has been relying solely on sales from markets to fund her business. It’s been working well for her. “Sometimes there are suddenly so many visitors at once, it’s as if a bus had arrived.”

Christmas stands selling colorful wares in an old building

The Christmas market in the Holy Ghost Hospital only has half of its usual stands

Strict indoor regulations

A line has formed outside the Holy Spirit Hospital, a former convent that’s still a home for the elderly. Only a certain number of guests are allowed to enter the whitewashed brick building where art, jewelry, decorations and hand-woven items await them.

For over 50 years, the German Association of Women and Culture has organized this special arts and crafts market. This year, only half of the booths are set up, and only 30% of the typical number of visitors were visiting when DW was there.

“It makes me sad,” says chairwoman Lore Evers. She misses Christmas music and “the smell of waffles drifting through the aisles, punch and wine stands surrounded by cheerful guests, and our bistro,” she remarks. Nevertheless, she, like many others, is happy that the market can take place at all.

Jörg Liebe from the town of Markranstädt near Leipzig is also relieved. He set up his stall with dollhouse furniture and miniature toys in the vaulted cellar of the hospital next to a glass artist and a hat designer. Liebe has been coming to Lübeck regularly for 20 years and this summer applied for his booth.

“I’m glad I didn’t rent a booth in Dresden,” he said, referring to Saxony’s capital where Christmas markets did not open this year.

“It’s important to be here,” he says, even if he sells less this year.

Edited by Benjamin Restle

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