I look forward to the Christmas markets each year: they flower across major cities in Europe in lights, foods, music, and drink. The gluhwijn flows, the skaters crow the ice, the Skywheels twirl. It’s good fun in the weeks leading up to Christmas and on through New Year’s.
Last year, Maastricht put on a spectacular show, with venues spread out across the town. Kerst aan de Maas was held outside my windows, convenient for hot krakauer sausages and fragrant mulled wine. I pushed things in England to get back to Maastricht ahead of the holidays so that I could enjoy the festival again this year. But this year, the apron along the river was dark except for an avant-garde piece of street art, a movie showing black and white prison scenes with a howling operatic accompaniment.
The Christmas Market, such as it was, filled half the Vrijthof square – in earlier years it filled the area. The Skywheel still glowed against the churches, but the Christmas shop was gone; the stands still served potato cakes and oliebollen but the rides and crowds were gone. The SMS Christmas tree, changing colors with a text message, was still in the Mossae Center, but sponsored by MacDnalds. The whole effect was shrunken and spare, not too well attended and missing the noise and laughter of earlier years.
I’m not sure what happened to the festival. Merchants shrugged and blamed high prices; friends shrugged and said that the prior year’s venues had been excessive. Who really needs two ice rinks? The recession, the euro crises, the moves to cut taxes, balance budgets, and shrink services may be biting even here.
Still, it’s unfortunate. The small-government anti-tax folks are quick to aim at municipal excess, and fireworks displays, libraries, Christmas festivals, and park maintenance is the obvious place to cut. But it also cuts to a communities pride and cohesion, the communal traditions and shared services that gather people together and mark the seasons.
Their loss diminishes us.
In much of North America and Europe, the holiday retail experience has become one that is devoid of imagination or any sense of giving back to the consumer. It smacks of miserliness and spending freezes…its more about Merry Cuts-mas than Happy Christmas. -- Tyler Brule for the FT