The twinkling stars shimmer in the trees above the Angel’s Christmas market in Cologne. In the shadow of the towering Cologne Cathedral, residents gobble down hearty potato pancakes with apple sauce. Across town at the Rudolfplatz market, visitors clutch hot mugs of mulled wine around stalls that resemble half-timber cottages.
It's all very quaint Christmas in Cologne's half dozen “Christkindlmarkt" on offer – except for one with an entirely different vibe: the gay and lesbian Christmas market. Here along Christmas Avenue, stalls are not trimmed with pine, but wrapped in sheets of hot pink and electric blue aluminum paper. The beverage stands are decorated Christmas with a twist: Caribbean, space odyssey, or disco. At the candy stand, the chocolate figurines are not traditional snowmen or angels but things that might make your grandmother blush. It doesn’t twinkle here, it glitters.
Germany’s Christkindlmarkt date to the 16th century, and their appeal lies in preserving centuries of tradition – taking visitors back to a time when Christmas seemed less fraught, consumer-driven, and political.
But at the three-year-old gay and lesbian rendition, the promoters have a different goal in mind. “We are trying to keep the Christmas spirit, but offer something different, more welcoming and upbeat,” says Sean Baker, who is in charge of the nightly acts that diverge widely from the average choral group chanting the standards. On a recent evening the organizers are preparing for a visit by an imitator of Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag queen who caused a stir across Europe when she won the Eurovision contest this year.
The emergence of the LGBT Christmas market is in many ways appropriate, with a growing number of niche markets targeted at specific populations – some for children, some for certain consumers. And it is another in-road for Germany's LGBT community into the nation's long traditions – much like Munich's "Pink Oktoberfest," which is celebrated within and part of the larger festival.
And if there is going to be a gay and lesbian market it makes sense to have one in Cologne, which, while not the capital of Germany, is known as Germany’s gay capital.
Still, when the market opened in 2012, Diana Russ, who is in charge of press for the market, says the Catholic Church was not a fan.
But for Bettina Henneke, who runs the wildly popular “Betty’s Pulled Pork” stand, the other markets might appear the most traditional, but it is here that the true Christmas spirit remains alive. “Everyone who stands in these stalls has their own history,” says Ms. Henneke, who dreamed up her pulled pork stand during a roadtrip on Route 66 en route to New Mexico. “It feels like a family here.”
The markets draw visitors from around the globe, hoping to experience a Christmas season that feels far removed from the 21st century shopping frenzy at the mall. But because of the mass appeal – big cities like Cologne draw millions of visitors each season, many by the busload – they can feel overrun by tourists and vendors focusing on the bottom-line. The market outside the Cathedral is stunning, especially its backdrop, but it is unquestionably hard to move among the crowds, especially on the weekend.
That’s why Melanie Falkenberg, a lifelong Cologne resident who works in sales, meets her friends at the gay and lesbian market instead of the five others in the vicinity.
“I can walk with my dog here, everyone knows me,” she says. “It is quieter. And it has the best food,” she says, finishing off a plateful of Betty’s pork.