In Europe, a Christmas in the shadow of terrorism, divisive politics

Holiday escapism might be elusive this year for Europeans burdened by the threat of terrorism, argument-inducing politics, and the prospect of uncertain economic times ahead.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Police patrol at the re-opened Christmas market at Breitscheid square in Berlin, Thursday, following an attack by a truck which plowed through a crowd at the market on Monday night.

It’s not that the Polish Christmas advertisement – featuring a dapper older man attempting to master English, which viewers later learn is in preparation for a visit to his family in the United Kingdom – is groundbreaking. But it went viral, showing the yearning for the heartfelt fancy of the holidays.

Yet no sooner was it released than the ugly commentary appeared. And suddenly a commercial that spoke to the common bonds of the migration experience became a platform for those hostile to Polish nationals residing in Britain. And it underlined that holiday escapism might be elusive this year for a Europe burdened by the threat of terrorism, divided politics, and uncertain economic times ahead.

Nowhere is that clearer than Germany, where a driver steered into a Christmas market in Berlin Monday evening, leaving 12 people dead and dozens injured. And now the season of the beloved Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market, in Germany has given way to high security and concrete barriers. The main suspect in the attack, named by police as Anis Amri, a Tunisian national who had his asylum claim rejected in Germany this year, is still on the loose, raising the stakes across Europe.

In Paris, a city that glitters during the holidays, security had already been beefed up, with armed military patrolling its most festive locales. This is the second Christmas under a state of emergency, put into place after the November terrorist attack here last year.

Siam Benzou, who is making crepes outside a department store where Christmas window displays were delighting young kids today, says she is not cowed by the threats. “We cannot stop our lives,” she says.

Still, the seasonal spirit is less pervasive this year. Bruno Le Roux, France's new interior minister, visited the country's most famed Christmas market in Strasbourg the day after the Berlin attack. “I wanted to get across a message to our fellow citizens that, at a time when there is a threat – it exists in our countries, it exists in all democracies – we must continue to go out, to have fun,” he told reporters.

More modest celebrations

Security isn’t the only worry clouding Christmas 2016. This is the first holiday season in Britain after Brexit, the vote of Britons to leave the European Union, and YouGov polling shows how much the foreign policy event will be fodder for the holidays. Respondents were asked whether Santa would have voted to “Remain” or “Leave.” (Two-thirds chose the former.)

More seriously, Brits are wondering if Christmas has gotten more expensive this year.

Although their reasons run the gamut, price-comparison website uSwitch found that two-thirds of Brits plan to cut their Christmas spending by buying less expensive gifts, not sending cards, socializing less, or forgoing a tree.

That was the norm after financial crisis struck Europe and still is in parts of the south. Spain has seen an economic bounce, but Bloomberg reported a shortage this Christmas of their beloved cured ham, jamon iberico, a byproduct of cutbacks at the height of economic crisis. In Britain, many are wondering how much their traditions will be changed by Brexit, especially those dependent on imported food, because of the drop in the pound.

Mintec, a consultancy that publishes an annual “Christmas Dinner Index,” says the base commodity prices for a typical British Christmas dinner – including turkey, potatoes and raisins (a key ingredient in Christmas pudding) – have increased by almost two percent compared with last year, in part because of a weaker pound.

“Brexit is affecting food prices already, in that the pound’s gone down,” says Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the Center for Food Policy at City University London.

On London’s Oxford Street, which is lit up with 1,778 glittering stars and snowballs, some Londoners report no difference in the prices of the food they buy or the gifts they seek – or generally their holiday plans. Others were less sure. One shopper named Rose says she thinks the weaker pound may be affecting people’s behavior subconsciously, and that some friends are cutting back.

“If someone had told me a year ago that the pound would be at this level, I would have never believed it,” she says. “So I think everyone’s a little more cautious, ‘cause anything can happen.”

The pall of politics

No one knows that better than Poles, who have been the target of hate crimes in Britain post-Brexit. The commercial that elicited disparaging responses from Daily Mail readers is just one example.

But most Poles are fixated on events at home, with growing protests in their nation against the governing Law & Justice (PiS), accused by opponents of undermining democratic checks and balances.

According to an IBOR Institute poll, 95 percent of Poles spend Christmas with close family, but not Sławomir Bojańczyk, an IT specialist who on a recent chilly evening is protesting outside the national parliament. He plans to spend Christmas right here. And he won’t be alone. Protesters have erected a Christmas tree and are feasting on traditional fare of fish and herring that people have brought from their Christmas parties.

Protest is more important this year than Christmas, he says. Besides, he expects the dinner conversation wouldn’t be exactly festive. “My family voted for PiS, so a conversation with them would not be very easy,” he says. ”Politics will dominate all discussions this year.”

Bożenna Mekdzy, a retired city hall clerk in Warsaw, says she is getting around this with a truce. “We decided not to talk about politics during Christmas, because it could lead to a fight,” she says. “Many Polish families are divided because of the politics, so it's better to avoid this subject, at least on Christmas.”

Hopefully at least Ms. Mekdzy will find Christmas cheer this year at her table.

• Tamara Micner reported from London and Monika Rebala from Warsaw.

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