Swiss Christmas markets vie to drum up business

Germany may have invented the Christmas market, but Switzerland presents stiff competition. The chance to browse handicrafts while sipping vin chaud under sparkling lights on a cold, dark night is an experience available all over the mountain country — and it's big business.

Swiss Christmas markets vie to drum up business
Photo: Caroline Bishop

This season's markets are enticing visitors with new and improved features.

Basel has created a new bar in the shape of a giant Christmas pyramid — a traditional German carousel-style festive decoration — where customers can stop for a glass of glühbier.

The Chistkindli markets, which operate in the train stations of Zürich and Lucerne, are brought right up to date with a new mobile  phone app, so customers can check out stalls before they arrive.

Montreux's market, along the shore of Lake Geneva, has been spruced up with a new 'Lumberjack Village', a large wooden cabin where visitors can warm up with pizza and hot drinks. 

Montreux, a town of just 25,000 people on the shore of Lake Geneva, has one of the country's largest Christmas markets.

Over four weeks, the 150 chalet-style stalls dotted along the lakefront attract 420,000 people, bringing 21 million francs to the town's restaurants, shops and hotels.

"It's the second most important event after the Jazz Festival," the market's president and director, Yves Cornaro, tells The Local.

"We fill the hotels every weekend and during the week too. The restaurants do two or three times the business."

Now in its 19th year, the market has grown steadily since it launched with just 60 stalls.

Today it costs 3.8 million francs to mount, 30 per cent of which is gained from stall fees, which range from 3,800 to 6,800 francs for the month, depending on the product (food and drink sellers pay the most).

The rest comes from sponsorship and other commercial initiatives.

Competition for stalls is strong.

"We have stallholders who have been coming for several years and want to come again, and then for the 25 new stalls that we have each year we get around 250 to 300 applications," says Cornaro.

Priority is given to artisan products, reflected in the array of hand-made goods available here, from blown-glass Christmas tree baubles, candles and soaps to jam, cheese and nougat.

"Those who produce things are favoured, and if they produce things on site that's even better," says Cornaro.

"Then there's the originality of the product, the quality of the item and the way in which it will be presented."

This year has a special focus on artisan food products from canton Vaud, says Cornaro.

But stallholders do not have to be locals. While the majority are Swiss, Montreux also welcomes sellers from countries including France, Greece, Italy and Russia, reflecting the international profile of the event.

"It began for me when friends of mine visited the market and said they thought Canadian products would be appreciated here," says French-Canadian Jean Yves Le Cavalier, a stallholder for 11 years. "Maple syrup is very popular."

With so many markets in Switzerland, Montreux demands high standards to remain competitive.

"You must perform well or you won't be invited back," says Le Cavalier. "We are evaluated by the presentation of the stall, the welcome given to customers, the products."

For the past eight years the market has made a profit, which is then reinvested in the event's activities and infrastructure, says Cornaro, like the development of a children's Christmas Village at Caux five years ago, and this year's renovations.

Over the years Le Cavalier has witnessed the market evolve.

"There have been changes, but always improvements. Changes are necessary or people won't come."

One market tradition which always attracts floods of people is Bern's annual Zibelemärit – Onion Market – which kicks off the festive season on the fourth Monday of November.

Dating from the mid-19th century, this one-day event was initiated by farmer's wives in the Seeland region who brought onions and other produce to the capital to sell on the first day of the city's medieval Martinmas Fairs, which celebrated the coming of winter.

Championed by the city, the event soon became an annual affair which has developed over the centuries into a highly popular festival, with many townspeople granted a day or half-day holiday to attend.

Starting at 6am, this year's event saw 59 tonnes of onions for sale in decorated strings on 200 stalls throughout Bern's old town. A further 400 stalls sold other produce, crafts and edible gifts.

Visitors feasted on onion tart, garlic bread and glühwein, while, as per tradition, throwing colourful confetti at each other in the streets. 


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