You feel the countdown to Christmas only really begins in Manchester once Bonfire Night is out of the way and the Christmas Market is in full swing.
That’s certainly the case now as the lights have been well and truly switched on, the decorations hung and the stalls are stretching out from Albert Square. There’s always a bewildering array of food and fare on offer – German, French and other continental flavours scent the air along with Glühwein and the obligatory Bratwurst and hot chocolate. The market really is a Christmas tradition.
But is it? It only started as an international market in 1999 when the German market from Frankfurt set up in St. Ann’s Square. It grew year by year to become the behemoth it is now, rightfully attracting visitors from all over the UK and beyond. Manchester’s Christmas market – all 350 stalls of it – now has a well-deserved worldwide fame attracting millions of visitors.
Before the market took hold there were other Christmas traditions in the city – the seasonal pantomime for a start and the annual circus at Belle Vue. It wasn’t unusual to see circus animals parading through the streets in the 1950s and 1960s – and panto stars often dropped in on chimps’ tea parties to publicise their shows.
If you don’t believe me, check out Thursday’s Manchester Evening News for some extraordinary images from the archives. There’s an extremely youthful Des O’Connor trying to put on a brave face as Tanya the elephant dangles her foot over his head in a picture from rehearsals for Cinderella in 1967 and actress Jill Adams sings a song with a chimpanzee in a still from 1955. The stars certainly earned their appearance money in those days!
Pictures with animals were in vogue then – not so much now.
Shopping was a lot different then too. Before the stalls of the Christmas market came into the city, people browsed the shop-windows hunting for a bargain or seeking out the must-have toy. There’s a lovely picture of the 1959 crowds in the M.E.N. article – quiet, restrained but intent on making the right purchase. No internet or Black Friday scrambles in the 1950s!
And what were they hunting for? The best-selling toys in the 1960s were the Etch-a-Sketch (which was brilliant until it broke and the iron filings fell out) and radio-controlled cars (no wires for the first time ever). Number one in the 1970s was, of course, the Rubik’s Cube, followed by the soft and spongy Nerf ball (it promised not to break anything inside the house) and Star Wars figures.
But back to the Christmas market. Just to prove nothing’s new, the original charter to hold markets in Manchester was granted by William the Conqueror in 1066. Medieval markets consisted of wooden stalls selling a range of home-made crafts and products, leather goods, wooden decorations, and foodstuffs including hot meats and sausages. There was even mulled wine.
In fact, a medieval time-traveller would feel right at home at the Christmas market of today.
Not sure what they’d make of the carol-oke cabins though…