Exporting German Christmas

Christmas has become a commercial whirlwind in Germany

The German Christmas industry has fast-forwarded past Indian summer straight into holiday bluster. Even as religious groups try to reign in commercialization of the holiday, Christmas remains a hot item abroad.

More than two months before the big day, the German Christmas industry has unwrapped the tinsel and colored lights. Seem a little early? In Germany, Christmas trading normally gets underway in September. The 2006 Christmas decoration catalogues shipped last month and grocery store shelves have sported Christmas cookies for nearly as long.

This weekend, a massive Christmas trade fair brings the commercial side of Christmas to the masses in Hanover.

“The selling started here in Germany at the end of September,” said Alexandra Jaspert, a spokeswoman for the Christmas Trade Fair in Hanover.

The Hanover fair will have 150 vendors selling every type of Christmas-related bauble, food and fashion imaginable. Whatever is new and trendy for Christmas 2006 can be found there. For Germans, that means decking the Christmas tree in patriotic yellow-red-black this year. While September jumps the gun for selling Christmas, mid-October is fair game, Jaspert said.

“We’re pretty early this year but when all the Christmas markets start it’s too late for us because all our exhibitors will be there,” Jaspert said.

German Christmas: with it’s tradition of hand-made craftsmanship went international decades ago. You can see it at the Christmas markets in Germany, where vendors toggle between five languages in a day and have signs in Japanese.

Take Käthe Wohlfahrt, a year-round Christmas empire with an internationally famous store. The Wohlfahrt family got its start in the 1960s selling German Christmas tradition, like music boxes from the famous crafts-producing Erzgebirge region, at bazaars held on US military bases.

The German company Krebs Glas Lauscha, which makes glass ornaments, expanded to the US in the 1970s with Christmas by Krebs. They have an office in New Mexico and a showroom in Dallas, Texas.

US households spent an estimated $6.5 billion (5.18 billion euros) on Christmas-related decorations in 2005. Additionally, many Americans feel linked to German holiday traditions through their own ethnic heritage.

When Americans shop for German Christmas decorations, they look for authenticity. They want to know where the wooden ornaments or nutcrackers were made, said Andrea Rank, of the Wohlfahrt Public Relations office.

“For the Americans it’s very important where the things are made,” she said. “They want things that are really produced here in Germany.”

At the year-round Wohlfahrt Christmas store, traffic picks up in September. By the beginning of Advent season, the stores are swamped, Rank said.

The early Christmas onslaught alarms some in Germany. Several religious groups have launched campaigns in recent years to try and reign in the holiday’s commercialism. Germany’s Evangelical Lutheran Church has vocally lobbied for people to moderate buying habits.

But contradictions exist. While 80 percent of Germans do not want to start seeing Christmas cookies and chocolate Santa Clauses for sale in October, according to the Evangelical Lutheran group, only 45 percent wait for Advent to buy Christmas products in the supermarkets.

Margot Kässmann, the bishop for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hanover, encourages Christians to make a political statement with their shopping baskets. Mercilessly marketing Advent and Christmas is the opposite message of what religion teaches, she said in a statement posted on the church’s Web site.

Meanwhile, in Hanover, the diehards load ornaments into their cars, munch gingerbread and count the months until Christmas Eve.

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