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Winter Wonders

In Cheltenham Christmas seems to come twice a year - once with the Christmas Market on the Promenade and again at the end of December. A. Burchard looks forward to both. crack

In the last few years Cheltenham has aquired a continental flavour when it comes to Christmas. The cosy wooden huts that spring up on the Promenade have illuminated our grim winter days with the warm glow of coloured lights, delicious things to eat and drink, as well as with original, handcrafted decorations for the festive days. Christmas is near and we all enjoy spending time looking for unusual gifts, large and small, for that special person in our lives.

At the time of going to press not all market participants were confirmed. As in past years the organisers promise a continental Christmas market. Like everywhere there have been an increasing number of sellers with the predictable Chinese and Asian imports, from ceramics to glass, as well as Peruvian knitted hats – not very ‘continental’. That’s a pity as I don’t see the point of selling the same things one can find in Cheltenham throughout the year. The cost of the hut rental also means that not many small local designers can afford to participate and that’s a shame.

Gloucestershire is full of creative people and it would be nice for them to have an outlet during the most profitable period of the year. Nevertheless, there are many participants from Europe, bringing with them sausages and beer and the hot, spicy Glühwein that will put colour into your frozen cheeks.

But Christmas markets are not new to Cheltenham. In December 1907 the Cheltenham Chronicle and Glo’shire Graphic reported: ‘A big crowd attended the Cheltenham Christmas Market during which Mr. Chas. Castle disposed of a number of turkeys, geese and ducks.’ The photos showed people carrying away animals which were still very much alive. Young women geese wedged geese firmly between their knees, plucking them until the ground turned white with feathers. This winter the only thing that will pluck at your heart or your purse strings will be tempting gifts, food and drink on offer.

The magic of Christmas

The alpine and German speaking countries lay claim to the origin of Christmas markets. With their tradition of hand-carving figurines they used the festive season to sell crib figures and decorations they had created during the year.

The Munich Christkindlmarkt goes back to the 14th century and this market was closely linked to the breweries. The setting, of course, is ideal – illuminated huts shed warmth and light on the snow covered Marienplatz, Munich’s main square. A ninety-foot high Christmas tree, sparkling with lights and decorations stands at its centre. For four weeks the smell of gingerbread and roasted nuts, candied fruits, frying sausages and Glühwein lets you forget the sub-zero temperatures. Bavarian choirs come down from the Alps to sing their Christmas carols from the very grand Town Hall balcony and brass bands puff their lungs out in the freezing air. If parents want time to themselves to shop for presents, they can drop their kids off in the Heavenly Workshop – free of charge!

The Viennese decorate the trees in their parks with heart shaped decorations, others with illuminated figurines. There is a Heavenly Post Office; musicians brave the cold in many parts of the inner city to play festive music. Schönbrunn Palace, the former imperial summer residence is illuminated, providing a spectacular backdrop for its own special Christmas village.

In Strasbourg, France, for the whole month of December over a million people from all over Europe sample the food and drink at the foot of the gothic cathedral.
Of course, Cheltenham cannot compete with these giants. In the case of Cheltenham, small is beautiful. But for the market to succeed one must remember that the people of Cheltenham also play a part in it’s success. All the sellers depend on selling his or her product during these two weeks, so it is important to dip into the purse, rather than just browse and say that things are cheaper in the supermarkets or in the cut-price shops in town.

For these long market days the trades people have to rustle up a large quantity of woollies, boots and socks to brave the cold and damp. They will battle with freezing fingers and toes to bring the festive spirit to Cheltenham.

There were some very stylish ceramics on sale last year. Beautiful, hand-made glass decorations for the Christmas tree promise to be here again. It all makes a welcome change from rushing from chain store to chain store in the frantic hunt for Christmas presents. And there is nothing nicer than to sit in one of the Promenade cafés and watch rosy-cheeked children gaze at the old fashioned, hand-made wooden toys.

Although the snow will probably not grace the scene, Cheltenham will definitely have a magic glow as the lights from many little huts will light up the town centre

This year the market will run from the 19th November to the 5th December with late nights on Thursdays.