From time to time I find myself walking through the Schnoor quarter – and I always stumble upon Father Christmas, standing there smiling at me, chubby cheeks and all. Not just in winter, but in the height of summer too. I met up with him recently – in July.
It’s late July and summer is in full swing. It’s about as long since last Christmas as it is until next Christmas. That’s why it feels so bizarre stepping inside the Christmas store. Everywhere I look, I see baubles of red, silver and gold sparkling and Christmas angels twinkling and I half expect Last Christmas by Wham! to start playing on the radio. The sense of confusion doesn’t last long though. The more time I spend in the Weihnachtsträume Christmas shop in the Schnoor, the more accustomed I become to all the festive decorations around me.
The building has been home to the Christmas shop for 22 years, but has itself seen a great many more Christmases. It is just over 400 years old, and was once a granary, explains the current business owner, Olaf Nehlsen. He and his partner, Victoria, took over the shop two and a half years ago. “We took an immediate liking to the then owner, Ms Fritz,” recalls Mr Nehlsen. The pair had actually been looking to take over a fashion store. “But then we ended up buying this Christmas shop, even though we didn’t really know much about the industry.” They didn’t then, but they certainly do now. With the help of Ms Fritz, they learned all there was to know about Christmas decorations. Every January they attend Christmasworld, a major Christmas trade fair in Frankfurt, where they order their stock for the entire year. “It’s logistically quite difficult,” explains the trained salesman who used to work in the logistics sector. “We now have several storage facilities in Bremen to store it all. The other difficulty is that you have to develop a particular sense of what might be the trend for the coming year.”
Ancient walls with a touch of sparkle
I am surrounded by a sea of Christmas decorations, and I find it hard to believe that a shop like this stays open in summer. Yet, while I’m in there, there’s a steady stream of customers browsing the displays with great interest, and several of them even buy something. “Our customers come from all over the world,” explains Olaf Nehlsen. “A shop like this arouses a lot of curiosity. And our customers are always in high spirits, which is what I love about this industry.” It’s true, everyone in the shop has a smile on their face. Their eyes light up as they browse the decorations and Mr Nehlsen is regularly summoned to offer his advice on Christmas tree decorations or fairy lights.
There’s one corner in particular that makes people stop and stare. Here, a magnificent Christmas tree stands before an old brick wall, in front of it stands a reindeer, to one side a piano, and beautifully wrapped gifts are dotted all around – it’s a truly inviting scene. This is no ordinary wall; it is in fact the largest section of Bremen’s old city wall still standing. The shop owner explains that the curved shape suggests that it must have been the base of a watchtower. When he bought the Christmas shop, it was important to him to keep this Bremen tradition alive and well. “There’s no shop like ours anywhere else in northern Germany,” he explains. The former owner first opened the shop to sell her own handmade Christmas decorations. She still contributes her expertise to the shop today. Olaf Nehlsen tells me “we are putting more and more focus on quality, and mass-produced goods are often customised to our own specifications.” The designs are created with the help of Ms Fritz, and are then sent to traditional manufacturers in Thuringia or Poland to be made.
New trends and old traditions
And what will the next Christmas trend be? Mr Nehlsen laughs: “it’s hard to say, because the industry is just so huge.” Ultimately, they only stock decorations that they themselves would happily buy. Most of the baubles and other tree decorations are made of glass or glass-effect polymers. The bulk of them are very traditional and elegant, some are a little more ‘eye-catching’. Speaking of eye-catching, Mr Nehlsen tells me a funny tale about pickles, which Americans famously like to hang on their Christmas trees. Yes, that’s right: pickles as in pickled gherkins. As is so often the case, the origins of this particular tradition are shrouded in uncertainty. One theory has it that a Bavarian-born soldier was held prisoner during the American civil war and, dying of hunger as he was, he begged for a pickle, which a guard duly gave him. The pickle saved the soldier’s life, and on returning to his family, he began hanging a pickle on his Christmas tree in tribute. The first person to spot the well-camouflaged green vegetable got to open the first present. It’s a custom that lives on to this day.
“Ah, Christmas – a time of traditions and customs,” I think to myself as I leave the shop. It’s somehow comforting to know that, if ever I need some Christmas cheer, I can find it here any time of year. And when the run-up to Christmas officially begins in September, the shop in the Schnoor opens the doors to its second floor. Two whole floors of twinkling lights and I’m sure Last Christmas will be playing on the stereo by then too.