How Christmas Markets Have Gone Global
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How Christmas Markets Have Gone Global

Is there such a thing as too much holiday cheer?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Photo courtesy of Welcome to Sapporo.

Photo courtesy of Welcome to Sapporo.

In a city known for snow, skiing, and hearty cuisine, wooden stalls fill a downtown park to create an annual Christmas market. The scene is Sapporo, Japan, which has hosted a German Christmas Market since 2002.

Japan’s fourth-largest city might seem like an unlikely place to find Bavarian specialties, like pretzels, each December, but the event is a result of Sapporo’s relationship with its sister city, Munich.

Christmas markets have a long history in Germany, dating back to the Middle Ages, with the first written records of the winter festivals appearing in the mid-1600s. Today, there are some 2,500 markets in Germany, and similar practices are found in neighbouring countries.

As anyone who’s wandered through the Distillery District’s Christmas Market can attest, vendors typically sell crafts and other gifts alongside warming food and drink. From glogg (mulled wine) in Denmark to grzane piwo (mulled beer) in Poland, there is no shortage of festive beverages, and Canadian gamay may soon join the ranks of holiday icons.

Sapporo shows that Christmas markets have expanded beyond their origins in Central Europe to become a global phenomenon. So if countless cities across multiple continents boast markets, do these seasonal events contribute to the unique identity of a community or simply entrench each place as an interchangeable site of shopping and off-key songs?

Certainly, Christmas markets have a lot in common and many compete to win over the hearts (and wallets) of tourists and residents alike. But in every city where they appear, the markets also reflect local priorities.

Sapporo’s event is a symbol of international cooperation between two cities, while Kitchener’s Christkindl Market and Quebec City’s Marché de Noël allemand are celebrations of German heritage driven by community-based cultural organizations.

Like Sapporo, Toronto maintains a partnership with a German counterpart. In fact, the City of Toronto’s International Alliance Program encompasses relationships with ten different cities. Friendship cities are championed by community groups and include Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Kyiv, Ukraine; Quito, Ecuador; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sagamihara, Japan; and Warsaw, Poland.

In contrast, partnership cities are initiated by City staff and prioritize economic development opportunities ahead of cultural activities. Toronto currently has partnerships with Chicago, Milan, Chongqing, and Frankfurt.

Despite the fact that Toronto has been paired with Frankfurt since 1989, Toronto’s Christmas markets are the product of local rather than global partnerships. Now entering its seventh year, the Toronto Christmas Market is a non-profit that works with groups, including the Daily Bread Food Bank and the Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund. Similarly, Holiday Fair in the Square, a new arrival outside City Hall this year, supports Epilepsy Toronto.

Although Christmas markets encourage spending and run the risk of making an expensive time of year even less affordable, they are also an example of how Toronto can learn from other winter cities. As the days get colder and darker, this globalized tradition lights up the night sky from northern Japan to the shores of the Great Lakes and invites people to flee mall Santas and instead enjoy the season outside.