Lorne Jackson

BROWSING in a supermarket the other day, I came across a product I’d never seen before. Mince pie flavoured porridge.

Now being a journalist, I am, of course, a cynical and sneery sort of fella. So you’d probably assume I’d be wary of such a product, concluding that it was cobbled together with the sole purpose of making a fast buck in the run up to Christmas. It really was the sort of tacky item most newspaper hacks would have a field day grumbling about in print. What a sham! What a shame! Christmas is kaput! Killed by the ker-ching of the capitalist coin machine.

However, gazing at that seasonal box of breakfast oats, I knew I wouldn’t be writing my version of that argy-bargy article. So, instead, I popped the mince pie flavoured porridge in my shopping basket and went skipping to the till while whistling Wizzard’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.

And as I whistled, I thought to myself: “Mince pie flavoured porridge? Yas!!! Bring it on, Santa, baby! And while you’re at it, how about some turkey flavoured Corn Flakes? And maybe when I get home I can dive into a hot tub filled with cranberry infused bubble bath. Then I’ll rub my back down using a sprig of holly as a loofa...”

From the above little episode you’ve probably guessed by now that I happen to like Christmas. Quite a lot.

Christmas twee

Not the religious stuff, though. Nah. It’s the rampant commercialism I adore. The naked gimme, gimme, gimme of it all, tastefully disguised as a fat man in a red and white suit chortling and chucking presents in all directions.

I love everything about Christmas. (Minus the ‘away in a manger’ biz.) I love ghost stories around a crackling log fire. I love Scrooge being a rotter. I love watching The Snowman on Channel 4 for the gadzillionth time. I love subserviently listening to the Queen’s speech while trying hard not to remember that Liz happens to be Andy’s mum, and she really should have spent less time queening around and more time raising a halfway decent batch of sprogs.

I love the Christmas tree. I love the Christmas twee. But most of all? I love a Christmas market.

Of course Christmas markets are a fairly new addition to our Yuletide festivities. The concept was imported from mainland Europe. (No doubt Nigel Farage has plans to ban them.) I came across my first UK-style Christmas market about 15 years ago in Birmingham. I remember being enchanted by row-upon-row of wintry log cabins, each one looking remarkably like an over-sized cuckoo clock. Though instead of containing an irritating bird, the cabins were loaded with booze, bonhomie and tasty bites to eat.

Scotland took a while to catch up with the idea, though nowadays our major cities, and more ambitious towns, all boast their very own Christmas markets.

They do, however, differ greatly in ambition, style and seasonal cheer. With this in mind, I decided to sample the offerings of those two great rivals, Glasgow and Edinburgh, to discover who has won this year’s Crimbo Wars by devising the most magnificent and memorable market…

Glasgow: Miles better?

“Wit ye havin’ pal?” asks the barman in The Ranch.

“Do you have eggnog?” I ask.

He looks at me like I’m some sort of eccentric weirdo.

“Eggnog?” he smirks. “It’s only the beginning of December, pal.” Clearly he thinks it’s far too early to be asking for such a festive drink.

“But isn’t The Ranch slap-bang in the middle of Glasgow’s Christmas market?” I say to him, quite reasonably, I think. “If it’s too early to be enjoying a Christmas drink, why bother erecting a Christmas market?”

He just stares at me. So I buy a seasonal beer instead. (Actually it’s just a normal beer. The kind that gives you the exact same kind of hangover 12 months of the year.) Then I walk back to my table, straddle my saddle, and drink my beer. Yup, pardners. You read that last sentence darn tootin’ right. I happen to be perched on a saddle, because I’m drinking in a booze-shack that’s themed along the lines of the American West. Dolly Parton is playing on the stereo and cowboys boots are pinned to the wall.

And I’m squatting on a stool with a saddle nailed on top, wondering what any of this has to do with Christmas. Nothing, is the answer, of course.

The perfect Christmas atmosphere should reflect the cold outside and the cosiness indoors. A wintry setting is not only ideal, it’s essential.

But the American West? That’s heat and dust. Stetsons and six-shooters.

A cowpoke in a Santa suit is a crummy version of Crimbo. Imagine a small child sneaking out of his bedroom in the early hours of Christmas morning, tiptoeing down the stairs in his jimjams, creaking open the living room door only to spot Clint Eastwood hurtling down the chimney.

“There’s a new sheriff in town, ya li’l varmint,” Clint would tell the eager youngster, before pulling a shotgun from his Santa sack and ordering the kid back up those stairs cos there’s gonna be no prezzies this year.

I’ve no idea why the folks who organised the Glasgow market in George Square thought it would be a good idea to have a Western-themed bar.

To be honest, I don’t think much thought went into this market, at all.

Earlier in the day I informed a friend that I intended to visit Glasgow’s Christmas Market. She laughed and said: “Paddy’s Market with tinsel.” Harsh, but not far off.

A Christmas market should be like a movie or a novel. It should tell a story. As you stroll through it, a strong narrative should unfold. But Glasgow is just a series of random stalls which don’t have a connection to each other, or the essence of the season. And many of the stalls, it has to be said, do look a tad tatty.

Glasgow has two markets, in George Square and St Enoch Square. St Enoch is more focused on the food side of things, although that’s the wrong word, really, because there is no focus. There’s too great a variety of foods on offer, and no overarching theme. Some of the scoff does look appetising, though little of it is Christmassy.

A spicy curry might be yummy, but it’s got as much to do with December the 25th as a beach holiday in Brazil.

Edinburgh: A capital Christmas

The problem with Edinburgh’s Christmas market is that it’s one big cheat.

I mean, the city could have contented itself by setting up a series of heart-warmingly festive stalls.

But, no, Edinburgh had to go one step further. Push things too far. The city had to have that whopping fairy tale castle of theirs looming over everything.

Seriously folks. Couldn’t you have boxed-up Edinburgh Castle and packed it away for December, just to give every other Christmas market a chance?

The Edinburgh market is in East Princess Street Gardens, and it has a genuine winter wonderland feel to it. Better than that, I don’t spot any signs of the Wild West.

Many of the rides evoke an old-world charm, such as the Venetian carousel with painted wooden horses. Meanwhile pine trees have been planted everywhere, and there’s even a Christmas tree maze, which means that, for once, you can genuinely get lost in Christmas.

The food and drink has a proper story to tell. And it’s a story to my liking. Hot mulled wine. German sausage. Melted cheese poured inside crusty hunks of bread. Belgian hot chocolate.

Everything is thoughtful and coherent. Plus this market has scale on its side, dwarfing dinky Glasgow. Size, it seems, really is everything.

As painful as it is for a West-coaster like myself to admit, Edinburgh wins the Christmas Wars. With ease. It’s feisty, festive and fun to visit.

Glasgow, meanwhile, is a bah-humbug botched operation. Or, as I prefer to think of it, a lumpy bowl of porridge, minus the mince pie flavouring.