Berlin - It’ll all be over by Christmas – or at least that was what so many of us had hoped throughout the coronavirus pandemic. But it very much isn’t over, so for many of the Wahlberliner from all over the world, safety concerns have ruled out a festive trip home.
That doesn’t mean they have to abandon all the traditions and treats they’ve known since childhood. The pre-Christmas period typically sees customers flock to specialist international shops that stock the festive goods they’ve known all their lives – and the same period is key for those shop owners too.
But of course, because this is 2020, this seasonal jollity is being brought to an abrupt early finish – many such shops will have to close today ahead of Germany’s new harder lockdown coming on Wednesday. Some of them are small, niche enterprises, so the shortening of the Christmas period raises existential fears.
Beate Lemcke has run her shop, Irish Berlin, for 25 years and been in Große Hamburger Straße near Hackescher Markt for the last 20. Her wares include classic food items like Barry’s Tea and Irish whiskey, Celtic trinkets and a range of knitted attire, mostly from independent Irish craftspeople – and it’s these which are a key seller in the run-up to Christmas. “This is the horror scenario,” she said of the new lockdown. “Christmas trade accounts for a quarter of annual sales, so most small traders make their living from it.”
“There is no other solution right now, I can see that. But it will have unpredictable consequences … somehow the show must go on, but at the moment I feel like the ground is being pulled from under my feet.”
Not all shops face the same predicament. Broken English, a Kreuzberg spot selling mainly British fare, will be staying open due to the high number of food items it has in stock – as it did during the first lockdown.
Shopkeeper Antje Blank, who lived in the UK for 15 years, says Christmas this year has highlighted the meaning of these reminders of home more than ever. Brits in Berlin have had to be patient for some home comforts – like festive mince pies or controversial yeast spread Marmite – because of supply chain issues caused by corona.
“We had a Scottish lady come in who was in tears because she found Scottish scones - the flat ones which you don't really get often - so she was really happy,” she explains. “It's usually that kind of thing. People get homesick and they get themselves some treats to remind them of their childhood.”
Beate says the same significance applies to her Irish clientele – for whom the shop is about more than just fighting off cravings for familiar snacks. “The Irish, although traditionally a country of emigrants, remain very attached to their homeland and their culture,” she says. “It’s unthinkable not to spend Christmas at home, with parents and grandparents… people like to come here when they are a little homesick, not just for the products but also the atmosphere. People say it’s like an extended living room as they know it from Ireland.”
This year, the Irish government has asked its citizens living abroad not to come home for Christmas to prevent another surge in virus cases. A customer at Irish Berlin is following suit, planning to spend Christmas with her German boyfriend and his parents in Halle instead of her family in the northeast of Ireland. She’s in the shop to pick up items for an Irish gift package for her in-laws, sharing some of her favourites from home.
In fact, these shops often have an appeal for Germans as well – and some shopkeepers say the pandemic has even boosted their Christmas takings. “We've been making twice or three times our usual revenue for weeks,” says Kerstin Finger of Kreuzberg’s Amore Store, which sells Italian food and gifts. The grocery half of the shop will be staying open during lockdown – the other half will be shut – but with an online store too, she isn’t concerned about the potential impact.
“I think people want to spoil themselves this year - people haven't seen their families for a long time, and I imagine that people have been spending less in restaurants, so now they want to be more generous with Christmas gifts,” she adds. “Everyone wants to do something good for each other. Italy is somewhere people long to go to, both Italians and Germans, so coming to us is often a real consolation for people.”
For Helge Drescher, who runs the Scandinavian Schweden-Markt in Friedenau, recreating the Christmas feeling is also at the heart of his shop’s appeal. Although international travel rules have meant he has been able to continue travelling to Sweden to collect stock, quarantine restrictions apply to tourist travel – making Christmas trips much less popular.
“The mood is pretty sad, wistful – of course you want to go to your family for Christmas, but that’s not going to work this year,” he says. “Now people are happy they can at least have a little sense of home with a Swedish Christmas dinner.” And in this particularly gloomy year, Germans who share his passion for all things Swedish also want in on some Scandinavian cosiness. “People come in and say they can’t travel this year, so they just want to sit at home with a few friends and eat some Swedish cake or drink some mulled wine. That’s what it’s about – everyone’s just trying to make the best of it this year.”
He’s trying to do the same, with extra orders to keep the shop full and make sure no customer misses out – but like so many other businesses, corona’s brutal impact still leaves a question mark over the whole festive period. “I’m always happy when we have customers and we can maybe even compensate for what we missed in spring and summer. But it is really difficult - normally we also go to the Christmas markets and of course all of that is missing. I think the next six months will decide if we can carry on or not.”
Corona fallout isn’t the only problem next year will bring – Antje and Beate are anxiously looking ahead to Brexit too. “I'm getting an order in this week and then I'm putting in a very last order for this year, which I would never do, because we’re so busy anyway,” Antje says. “We have no time or space to deal with it, but we're just getting in as much as we can. I'm pretty sure January will be horrific – it’ll just be impossible to get anything over.”
She’s concerned about what Brexit will mean for the survival of some of her smaller suppliers – and Beate and Helge have each had one supplier shut down or reduce their operations because of corona. They are all hoping that they will be spared from as much of the corona damage as possible.
As Germans who run their shops out of their passion for places further afield, looking to those places provides some solace for getting through the difficult months ahead. Beate grew up in East Germany, and her first trip abroad after the fall of the Berlin Wall was to Ireland - and she's never looked back. She says: “I try to follow the Irish way of life a bit – just to stay optimistic and look ahead, and what will be will be.”