The Atlanta Christkindl Market was just starting to hit its stride last year, with a move downtown to Centennial Olympic Park that gave it much-needed legroom to reach a more sustainable scale.
Unfortunately, pandemic-stricken 2020 had other plans, forcing the organizing committee at the German-American Cultural Foundation to suspend this year’s festivities in October, just as concrete arrangements were starting to materialize.
From a modest 12 booths in 2016 at Atlantic Station, the foundation’s local take on the ubiquitous Christmas markets that dot downtowns across Germany had kept up a steady growth trajectory for four years.
Its imported wooden stalls sold mulled gluehwein, bratwurst, nutcrackers, wooden toys, ornaments, marzipan and other German and European delights, while an extensive programming schedule drew visitors to the park for concerts and corporate gatherings now largely nonexistent in a world marked by COVID-19. The Christkind, or Christ Child, visited from Nuremberg each year to kick off the festivities.
The total booths climbed to 61 in 2019, as the market achieved one of its founding goals — creating a landmark cultural installation in the city’s core — while making modest progress toward another: becoming profitable through ticket-sales, booth rentals and sponsorship in order to raise money for German language education and cultural programming around Atlanta.
“It was not all perfect, but it was overall a success for almost everybody,” said Rudi Herbst, a vice chairman at the foundation and the CEO of United Soft Plastics Inc., who has been heavily involved in the market since the idea emerged.
The foundation partnered with the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to put on last year’s month-long event, counting 600,000 visitors to Centennial Park as it augmented conventions and sporting events downtown, Mr. Herbst said.
Indeed, foundation officials say the market had become a regional crossroads for the benefit of the city, with snowbirds stopping an extra night en route to Florida or and social media tags of the Atlanta Christkindl Market Facebook page showing how families spread across the South and starved for European travel planned to use it as a rendezvous point.
Mr. Herbst said the plan was to install 75 booths this year, before it became obvious that the coronavirus pandemic would not subside by the week before Thanksgiving. COVID-19 cases were climbing in much of the country at the time and have remained elevated since, with more than 200,000 new cases confirmed almost every day since late November. All-time COVID-related deaths surpassed 300,000 this week.
After conferring with vendors, the foundation decided not to offer a virtual market, instead opting to regroup for the new year, despite the financial hardships of 2020. They remain undeterred for 2021 and beyond.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said foundation Executive Director Sabine Genet, who noted that stakeholders have praised the market for enlivening downtown by providing street-level activity after hours. “Various layers of decision-makers agree that the Christkindl market is a gift to the city, and it has earned a place in its annual activities and attractions.”
Mr. Herbst said the German-American Cultural Foundation’s board this week approved a five-year plan that could more than double the number of booths to 150 if all goes as planned. There is talk of spinning off the foundation into its own nonprofit entity.
Mr. Herbst, who hails from the southern German state of Bavaria, fondly remembers markets of his youth as the quintessential family Christmas activity.
“That is the best thing I lost when I left Germany,” he said.
With this in mind, the Atlanta Christkindl Market aims to offer something for everyone, whether nostalgic Europeans or newbies in the international space.
The foundation hopes to generate deeper involvement from Atlanta’s diverse international community, Ms. Genet said, in line with its long-term goal of supporting more transatlantic cultural ties. Especially in recent years, European groups have shown a greater appetite for collaboration to raise their collective profile, she said.
“That’s kind of where we’re growing to, and we’re recognizing that we should be in the international space more than just the German-American space,” she said of the foundation, which has funded German educational exchanges, language teachers and partially, the Goethe-Zentrum Atlanta.
Mr. Herbst, who has been traveling even throughout 2020 to manage his global manufacturing company, relishes the chance to deepen Atlanta’s already substantive ties with the world, especially at a location emblematic of its Olympic coming out party.
“This city is a very international city,” Mr. Herbst said. “We have people from more than 100 nations here, and even more — and not in small quantities. That makes Atlanta so nice, and I really like this mix.”
Learn more about the German-American Cultural Foundation at https://www.gac-foundation.org.