In 2016, I found one of my friends selling candied nuts at the Edinburgh Christmas Market. He looked to be having great fun, so I figured I’d apply to work at the 2017 market. What seemed to be an enjoyable opportunity quickly turned into a nightmare. If you’re considering working at the Edinburgh Christmas Market, or just want to know what’s going on behind the scenes, please read on.
How the Edinburgh Christmas Market Started
Christmas markets first started in the 1300’s in Germany, back when it was still called the Holy Roman Empire. Over the years, the markets have slowly spread across Europe, and have even begun to percolate into the US.
The Edinburgh Christmas Market began in 2000 when about 40 families came over from Germany to sell their wares in the Princes Street Gardens. It started as a family affair with some of the families even relocating to Edinburgh permanently and working the market over the holiday season.
The families I talked to said that Underbelly took over the management of the market in 2008, although their website and other sources put the date in 2013. At the time, many of the 33 remaining stallholders weren’t welcomed back and instead went to work at the Alnwick market, next to the famed castle used in the filming of Harry Potter. Those that did remain did so under higher fees for the stalls (supposedly up to £15,000 per booth) and many steep fines for misconduct.
Underbelly, which began at the 2000 Edinburgh Fringe and is now headquartered in London, has events in Edinburgh, London and Hong Kong. They are one of the three primary organizers for the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival (the largest art festival in the world), and this year they closed a three-year contract to host Edinburgh’s Hogmanay New Year’s Celebration. At some point, Underbelly hired Angels Event Experience Ltd. as an intermediary between them and the stallholders.
The changes have created a continuous stream of contention and controversy among the stallholders as well as many citizens of Edinburgh, with some feeling the market no longer has its original charm and purpose, while others see it as a much more family-focused festival catering toward the ever-growing tourism of Edinburgh.
Getting Hired to Work at the Edinburgh Christmas Market
I was able to contact one of the stallholders directly, thanks to my friend who had worked at the market the previous year. Another new worker found an application on a German job website, and came over from Hamburg to work the market for her first year. We weren’t the only ones in the series of stalls I worked at who were helping for the first time. Others had been helping for several years, although many of those were all part of the same German family.
The stalls were definitely a family affair. The grandmother seemed to be the owner, although the only description that was ever given to her was the woman who, if she said the floor was green, it was green. The mother was the manager, and the father seemed to handle the logistics and weekly shipment runs from Germany. Sons, daughters and cousins all helped in the stalls, adding to a workforce of some two dozen or so staff spread out across six stalls (two less than the previous year, as the candied nuts were not brought back).
When I originally applied, two work options were offered. 1. A room in the staff flats and up to 120€ for the flight, with a fixed salary of 450-500€ a week plus a nice bonus at the end of the market. Those in the flats were obligated to do the laundry for the business in addition to market hours. 2. Getting my own flat and getting paid 7.80 for every hour worked.
It sounded great, except I was later to learn that many of the details were intentionally left vague. I accepted a position for full-time and said I would get back on which option I would choose. I later said I would like the flat, but this was ignored until I arrived. I was given a room in the staff flat (which all turned out to be shared) and put on hourly pay. I quickly realized just how terrible the arrangement was.
Working at the Market
The market opened up almost every day at 10 a.m. and closed at either 9 or 10 p.m. At the end of the day, there was cleaning of the stalls, and often deliveries in which everyone participated, sometimes until after midnight.
During the first few days, I started at 10 which was later changed to noon. There were a couple days I was let of around dinner time. Otherwise, my “shift” was from noon until around 10, I had a break for a few minutes to gobble down dinner (sausages and potatoes every day from the butcher stall). If I took more than a couple minutes to run through the crowds for a short bathroom trip, it became a problem. Basically, I was standing in one spot telling my products for up to 13 hours a day with hardly any breaks.
In my first week at the market, I worked over 66 hours, and the second week was 63 hours. I soon learned that the other “full-timers” and family members were working as little as 5 hours some days, getting three-hour breaks in the middle of the day while taking routine cigarette, pee and movie breaks throughout the day. Several times I saw or heard of other staff arriving to work late drunk or stoned, yet their pay never varied from their 450 a month.
In the end, I would have to work 60 hours a week to match what they were being paid, plus the flat which I was later charged £300 a month for. Despite five staff assigned to my stall, there were several hours every day when it was only me and one other helper. The “leader” of the stall could routinely be found sitting on the freezer out back watching movies, chatting on the phone, or hanging around the bathrooms smoking, while other members chatted with their girlfriends, played pranks on the customers or were just gone on one of their breaks.
Don’t Work Too Hard
On the second day of the market, I ran out of one of the products I was selling. I mentioned this to one of the other staff, and they gave me a scowl, saying I should try to balance the products. A few minutes later, someone else asked me how long I had been a salesman for. I truthfully said “two days.” To be making the most money in the stall as the new guy seemed to make me unpopular.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to sell out more and more products. Each time I did, it was a problem, and I was asked to sell something different. At one point, I started keeping track of how many items I was selling, finding I was personally bringing in over £1000 each day for the stall. When I showed this to the manager, they wanted to know why I would keep track of my production. Um…maybe because it’s good business practice?
After a couple weeks at the market, I had the audacity to ask the manager if I could get a bonus for selling a high amount or selling out a number of the products. She looked at me as if I had uttered something truly horrendous. Okay, no rewards for doing a good job. Noted.
Constant Pranks and Disrespect
Years ago, I heard a joke about Germans. Q: How many Germans does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: One. They’re efficient and don’t have a sense of humor.
I’ve now learned that’s not entirely true. I never like to stereotype an entire country or culture, but Germans do seem to have a sense of humor, and it’s noticeably dark. Most of their “jokes” were more just direct insults and invalidation, and their pranks were better left to the creators of Jackass: The Movie.
One day, I was a little shocked when the stall leader triumphantly held up a glue gun and laughed about how he had cemented a pound coin to the pavement outside the stall to tease the patrons.
Another day, I had just finished drying my hands when one of the boys in the stall said I needed to give him £10. Taking this as further German humor, I ignored him, but he insisted. So I asked him why. “You rang the bitch bell,” he said. The what? Turns out I had accidentally rung a bell they had hung up in the stall, which they would ring whenever…well, as the name implies. I found myself becoming more and more ashamed of being part of the stall. Eventually I started looking out for the three gorgeous Huskies that routinely roamed the market, in case I accidentally rang the bell again.
Perhaps the worst moment I observed was when an altercation erupted just outside the stall. Security and police quickly responded to take care of the two drunk men. Yet instead of doing anything to assist the authorities, the two German boys in the stall grabbed their loudest bells and shook them beside the heads of the guards while screaming “fresh hot pretzels.” They did this over and over until the guards finally turned around and told them to stop.
Their behavior really got under my skin, and I asked them why they would have such disrespect for authority. Their reply was “we’re only here to make money, and they’re in our way.” I said that was no excuse to be so rude, and they said “You’ve got no right to talk. You’re just the new guy.” I might have spent a couple minutes mentioning how the new guy was able to look at things from a fresh viewpoint, and not agree with their behavior.
By the second week of the market, I had turned on a rather nasty illness. I wasn’t the only one. I found out many, if not most of the staff were sick. However, as the stalls were already stretched thin, there wasn’t really an option to get a day off from work. I saw staff sometimes sent home early by the manager, but more often than not it was just the option to skip the final few minutes of cleaning at night.
Then one day I heard that one of the girls in the waffle stall had severely burned her hand on the waffle maker. One of the staff from my stall went to go cover for her while she was taken care of, but I believe she continued to work shortly after getting bandaged up.
In the third week, one of the staff disappeared and I learned he had flown back to Germany to take care of a medical problem. He showed up a few days later and resumed work. I was left to wonder if he was paid for the days he was away.
Finally after standing in one spot for over 10 hours a day in temperatures that got as low as -4°C and rarely about 5°C, my body gave out and I took a day off to stay in bed with a horrible migraine, having long since lost my voice at the market. As I was only being paid by the hour, I went back the next day even though I had barely recovered. When I walked back into the stall, I found the manager unhappy that I had missed a day.
“What Can I Do About It? I’m Just the Manager”
After seeing the constant laziness, pranks and problems in the stall, I one day mentioned it to the owner that it would be nice to improve conditions in the stall. I thought she would be upset with me for bringing it up. After all, most of the staff were her kids and grandkids. I certainly wasn’t expecting the answer she gave me. Essentially, she agreed with me that conditions were really bad. Three things she said stuck out in my memory. First, she said someone should be in charge of taking care of the staff and ensuring conditions were good. Second, she said some of the stalls were so bad that she didn’t even want to enter them. Third, she said, “That’s just what you get when you work with Germans.” As a note, I didn’t agree with the last statement, although they did seem to be trying to convince me otherwise.
Finally, I went to the manager to see if I could improve conditions and find out why there was such a disparity in the pay. After a couple attempts to brush me off, she finally remarked that she refused to hear anything bad said about the staff and didn’t want to know what could be improved since she had been doing the job for 18 years and considered it perfect. I persisted to try to get her cooperation to improve things. She cut me off with her response. “What can I do about it? I’m just the manager.” “Yes,” I said, “that’s why I’m coming to you.” “Well, then I’m just a bad manager.” I reiterated I wasn’t trying to find with her or the stall but to actually help make things better.
Throughout the conversation, she asked me repeatedly if I wanted to quit the market. I said no, I wanted to stay and improve things. She became more insistent with her question until it became more of a demand, and I had to accept.
Making the Best Decision
I do not like breaking an agreement I’ve made or withdrawing allegiance I have given. At the same time, I’m not willing to work for a company with such a poor work ethic, and I believe that no one should confine themselves to conditions anywhere in life that are detrimental to their survival.
It was also another experience that showed me how too many businesses are all too unwilling to improve conditions, work with their staff or accept recommendations. This seems to characterize companies whose only self-proclaimed purpose is to make money. In my opinion, when money outweighs morality and the desire to help, things all too often move toward bad business practices and even criminality.
I’m writing this article simply because I want to make those interested in working at the market aware of the conditions. The facts certainly don’t reflect all stalls in the market, although the hours and pay are fairly consistent between the stalls, based on what I learned while I was there. I also write this as a reprimand for the jokers in the stall, and as a statement that I do not agree with their behavior. I look forward to them improving conditions, as I know there are a lot of locals in Scotland who come to the market every year to get their German products.
I personally enjoy the Christmas market and take friends there throughout the season. I don’t think I could ever eat another plate of sausages and potatoes, but the raclette baguettes were delicious, and I still have a few other stalls to sample the food at. Besides, I still intend to buy some products at Celtic Fusion Designs, the handmade Celtic pagan clothing company, which I missed out doing this year. Next year for sure.