Drive-ins, scattered huts: German Xmas markets find ways around virus

A drive-in Christmas market in Landshut, Germany, on Nov 26, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

LANDSHUT, GERMANY (AFP) - Chestnuts roasting, mulled wine steaming and music blaring from wooden chalets lined with artificial snow - the Landshut Christmas market in southern Germany has all the usual trimmings.

But this year, visitors must enjoy the sights and smells of the traditional Christmas market from inside their cars due to precautions to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Every night after dark, several dozen vehicles roll into the Christmas market drive-in, their occupants cosy and socially distanced inside.

Once through the gates, they must wait for an employee wearing a mask and a Christmas hat to knock on their window and offer them a menu of savoury treats to choose from, such as crepes, sausages and roasted chestnuts.

Orders placed, they can then drive on to the next hut offering sweets such as candy floss or gingerbread hearts.

"We take our inspiration from fast-food chains," smiles Mr Patrick Schmidt, 31, market organiser and owner of the Zollhaus Landshut restaurant.

"We wanted to recreate a bit of the Christmas atmosphere, even if it's more complicated this year."

The market is a way of helping his business get through "a difficult time", he said.

Billions at stake

As Germany battles a second wave of coronavirus infections, leisure and sporting facilities have been ordered to close, while restaurants and bars can only offer takeaways.

The restrictions also include limits on social gatherings and have been a huge blow to Germany's 3,000 or so annual Christmas markets.

The markets have been an annual fixture in Germany since the 15th century, when craftsmen and bakers were given special permission to ply their wares in town squares in the run-up to Christmas.

But many German cities have cancelled their Christmas markets entirely this year, despite the huge financial losses - the markets draw about 160 million visitors annually and bring in revenues of €3 billion (S$4.8 billion) to €5 billion, according to the BSM stallkeepers' industry association.

To keep the spirit - and the economic benefits - of Christmas alive, cities across the country have come up with creative initiatives.

A car stops in front of a booth at a drive-in Christmas market in Landshut, Germany, on Nov 12, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

500 cars

In Berlin's Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district, small clusters of huts have been spread across several streets, though food and drink cannot be consumed on site.

The world-famous Nuremberg Christmas market has been cancelled this year, but managed to hold an online version of its traditional opening ceremony.

And in north-western Germany, the town of Kalkar is also offering a drive-in Christmas market.

The market in Landshut has been open since mid-November and is proving popular with locals, according to Mr Schmidt.

"Last Saturday, we had 500 cars," he said.

And they're not just here for the mulled wine, served in thermos flasks to keep it warm - many are coming with the whole family in tow.

"I'm here to support the restaurants because I miss them," said Mr Markus Renneke, 55, visiting the market with his wife.

"And I think it's a great idea."

Sandra, joined by her teenage daughter Laura, is here to enjoy that special Christmas market "atmosphere".

"You have to put a bit of time aside and there are no stands selling anything but food, but that's okay," she said as a waitress arrived with two grilled sausages.

Her daughter, "starving", cannot resist starting to tuck into her sausage before the final stop: the checkout.

Once they've settled up, customers are free to return home basking in the glow of mulled wine - apart from the designated drivers, of course.

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