March 19, 2016

Christmas around Birmingham

Ah, Christmas. It is my favorite holiday season by far for a bunch of reasons that I won't even get into, but let's just go ahead and state the fact that Christmas in the middle of Birmingham's city centre is less than desirable. Hear me out.

Before we get into the local big-wig Christmas event, let's talk about the holiday aesthetic in Birmingham at large. This city is the second largest city in the UK, making it absolutely nothing like the quaint small towns surrounding it, and it's worlds different from London. It doesn't feel quintessentially English by any means as it's rather impersonal and definitely a multicultural hub. 

There are no "neighborhoods" in city centre, just random areas with apartment buildings, so there are no streets lined with houses decorated in Christmas lights, no Christmas wreaths or red bows adorning the front doors of homes. The only place to see real Christmas decor is at the German Market in Victoria Square and down New Street, and we'll get to why that doesn't fill my every Christmas desire in a bit. 

Additionally, businesses start pushing Christmas far earlier than I ever thought possible. Because there is no Thanksgiving holiday to separate the fall and winter seasons, it's easy for that to get pushed earlier and earlier as commercialism creeps into the hearts and pockets of large corporations. Upon our arrival in Birmingham, we saw posters at pubs and restaurants advertising their Christmas agenda. In the beginning of September they were telling people to book their holiday parties. They even had their Christmas menus out on the tables. A tad bit early, don't you think? 

Alright, moving on to the biggy. Birmingham is famous for holding its Frankfurt Christmas Market - the largest German market in the UK, claimed to be the largest authentic German market outside Germany and Austria.

"Each winter, the smell of Glühwein and sizzling Bratwurst fills the city centre air. Rows of wooden huts selling festive trinkets, sweets and gifts snake the route from the Bullring towards Victoria Square, where large crowds can be found tucking into pretzels, cakes and countless sausages. The Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market, to use its proper title, has become, for many, the city's premier yearly tradition since it began in 1997." [BBC]

It's true - there is enough Glühwein and bratwurst to fill you to your heart's content. It sounds so lovely, and we were thrilled for it to come to town, but that excitement quickly turned to dread. The market runs straight through the heart of city centre - through the exact route that takes Patrick to college and me to my favorite local coffee shop. It extends down the length of New Street all the way to the Bull Ring shopping center and the entrance of the mall, but there are two rows of booths the entire way. That means that the number of people visiting this heavily populated shopping area increases exponentially while the room in which to walk decreases to about a third of the size that it normally is. For someone who loathes crowds and hates being stuck in the midst of drunk shoppers trying to get from point A to point B, it is an absolute nightmare. And it goes on for six whole weeks. There is also a ferris wheel and a covered ice skating rink that sets up shop right in front of the library; they were up until about New Year's.

At first glance, the shopping appears to be adorable and authentic with rows and rows of craft booths to satisfy all your shopping needs while you munch on an overpriced pretzel sandwich or a three-foot frankfurter. All is not as it seems, though. The booths repeat themselves three times over with the same exact vendors, so the experience is a bit less exciting and varied than it claims to be. 

There's a large bar area where a radio station hosts nightly gatherings, but I can probably count the number of times I heard them playing Christmas music on one hand. It more resembled an outdoor club as the DJs tried to get the drunk crowd amped up. Talk about disappointing. The music is one of the best parts about the holiday season in my book.

If you don't look or listen too closely, grab some mulled wine and a bratwurst, and set out to do a bit of prime people watching, though, you're in for a good time. Just make sure to go during the week when you will actually have enough room to exist as the out-of-towners flood the city streets during the weekend. It was kind of a nightmare.

The season wasn't all bad, though, despite my grouchiness at the presence of the market and all those people. Our anniversary falls on December 12th, so we took the opportunity to do a few things that we hadn't yet done: a wander around the market for a bit of gift shopping while the crowds were away, a stroll through the local museum (which is both free and wonderful), a quick and quiet break for coffee at our favorite local haunt, a delicious and romantic dinner, and drinks with a good friend at our favorite local pub. We continued our celebrations the following week in London, spending an entire day wandering around that magnificent city before picking up Kathryn and Brandon at the airport for their week-long visit.

December felt like we were quite a bit more adjusted to living life in a foreign country, and with it brought many nights of good times with great friends. The school term was winding down, too, which meant that everyone was somewhat hyper and just a little bit crazy (hence the hysterical videos below). Those are some good memories!
































We were definitely ready to see the German Market get packed up, and it has been so nice having Victoria Square and New Street back in its normal state.

As for the Christmas holiday itself, it was spent with our wonderful Oklahoman friends (they're definitely Okies through and through) as they flew in to spend the week with us. Our itinerary for their stay with us was jam-packed with travel: Birmingham, Stratford upon Avon, Dublin, Warwick, and London filled up our holiday with Kathryn and Brandon. We wouldn't have had it any other way. Talk about a trip to remember! 

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