UK cities plan Covid-safe festivities as Christmas markets are cancelled

Phoebe Taplin
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

As if we didn’t have enough reasons to hate Covid-19, now it’s threatening – Grinch-style – to steal Christmas, too. Growing numbers of cities are cancelling their Christmas markets. One of the most recent cities to abandon its plans is Manchester. Its Christmas spokesperson, councillor Pat Karney, told the Manchester Evening News last week that the markets had “not met our commercial and public health tests”.

In December 2019, VisitEngland’s Christmas tourism survey showed more than 14 million Britons planned overnight trips during last year’s festive season and a third of those surveyed said they would be visiting a Christmas market. VisitEngland estimates these trips boosted the economy by nearly £3bn and predicts a 49% decline in domestic tourism spending overall this year. That’s before adding in the revenue loss to restaurants from not hosting larger groups and Christmas parties. A Welcome to Yorkshire poll found that 20% of hospitality businesses are cancelling planned activities and a third are scaling back.

York’s annual St Nicholas Fair was cancelled last week when the city moved to the more-restricted tier 2 alert level.

Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is not happening this year either, although other London-based festivals may still go ahead. UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls points out that London has already “taken a hit due to the dip in inbound tourism and with people increasingly working from home”, describing the city’s move into tier 2 as “catastrophic”.

Christmas fair and market in Edinburgh.
Pre 2020 … Christmas fair and market in Edinburgh. Photograph: Tom Bonaventure/Getty Images

Belfast, Edinburgh, Bristol, Bath, Aberdeen, Winchester and Oxford are some of the other cities to have cancelled Christmas fairs and markets. Lincoln Christmas market, the UK’s oldest, has been cancelled for the first time since 1982; the Christkindelmarkt won’t be turning central Leeds into a winter village and Birmingham’s Frankfurt-style market, which attracts more than 5 million visitors some years, was called off in September. Padstow’s harbourside Christmas festival and Stratford-upon-Avon’s Victorian Christmas fayre are similarly rescheduled for 2021.

Local authorities and businesses are searching for creative alternatives, with many promising smaller events and opportunities to support traders. Some restaurants are offering Christmas-in-a-box deliveries for virtual office parties; Birmingham Stage Company is touring a drive-in panto; Edinburgh’s market announced it was going digital; and Bath will be offering online shopping direct from the craftspeople who would normally be selling in wooden chalets.

Sheffield’s markets are still (currently) hoping to open on 12 November with a new Alpine-style bar – as well as more space between stalls. Also from 12 November, Cardiff’s market is still, for now, on (but dependent on restrictions post its “firebreak lockdown”). Likewise, Swansea confirmed its market will open on 27 November, but this was prior to new lockdown restrictions. Exeter and Plymouth are planning to go ahead, too, relying on wider paths and naturally large open layouts.

The market situation in Glasgow is still to be decided, though thecity’s Christmas lights switch on is cancelled – as it is almost everywhere – though decorative lights will still be a feature of seasonal cityscapes. Manchester is putting up additional lighting throughout the city centre. Market-less Cheltenham plans to have its new lights twinkling day and night with harps and gold-coated holly hanging from lamp-posts.

Events that have largely escaped the gloom are annual light shows at stately homes and gardens. Several grand houses, such as Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace and Waddesdon Manor, are gearing up for (pre-bookable) festive splendour. Chatsworth is opening rooms and galleries that are usually shut over the winter. English Heritage has replaced big events at flagship properties with smaller seasonal activities, but plenty of National Trust properties, including Belton House in Lincolnshire and Stourhead in Wiltshire, are selling timed-entry tickets for illuminated trails through parks and gardens.

Some venues have just joined the sound-and-light party this Christmas. Kingston Lacy in Dorset and Gibside in Gateshead have new after-dark fire and fantasy trails that enhance natural features of their parkland. And the gardens at RHS Hyde Hall near Chelmsford are installing a Glow trail for the first time this winter. So there is a ray of light at the end of the fairy-lit tunnel for those seeking a festive fix.