How York became one of the UK's most popular Christmas destinations
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 November 2017 | UPDATED: 16:55 16 November 2017
The Christmas Festival in York gets bigger and bigger, says Tony Greenway
York’s Christmas Festival is a bit like your waistline on Boxing Day. Every year, you notice that it gets bigger and bigger. If you head into York this month, take a wide-eyed look around. There are more lights on display in the city than ever before (they’d stretch for 15km if laid end-to-end; apparently), even Lendal Bridge, Ouse Bridge and the city’s four historic Bars have been illuminated.
When it comes to Christmas attractions and events, York doesn’t do ‘restrained’. The Ice Trail weekend is back; there’s a new Yorkshire Yuletide Village in the market area featuring local traders selling unique products; the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet has a larger ice rink and skate marquee for 2017 and there are even more street food traders in the Shambles Food Court over the festive season. Plus, every day from December 1st to Christmas Day, a shop window will be revealed as part of the city’s Living Advent Calendar. Celebrations start earlier this year, too, on November 16th.
So York loves Christmas. And Christmas loves York right back. ‘It’s a magical environment,’ says Sally Greenaway, head of Visit York, the city’s leisure tourism brand, when asked to sum up why Christmas in the city is so popular. ‘It’s rich in culture and heritage and history — which is what everyone loves about York. But it also has a modern side with new restaurants, bars and independent retailers adding to an eclectic mix. The Christmas season just works in York. But we’ve got to keep changing and evolving to make sure we’re a bit different to everywhere else. It has to be special. It has to be magical. And we have very high standards, because we want visitors and our residents to experience something enjoyable — and memorable.’
This year, that includes a new festive trail featuring light installations and illuminations called Christmas at York Museum Gardens. This has been created by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, the North Yorkshire-based company which runs Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland and THOR’S tipi bar in Parliament Street.
Lunchbox had always wanted to work inside Museum Gardens and, to create the attraction, teamed up with Raymond Gubbay, the company behind the illuminated trails at Kew Gardens and Blenheim Palace, spending more than £500,000 to make it as spectacular as possible. ‘The trail lasts between an hour and 90 minutes — depending on how quick you walk — and takes in every element of the gardens,’ says Maria Farrugia, executive producer at Lunchbox. ‘It includes projection onto the abbey ruins; a singing trees installation; a UV trail; a mirrorball path, musical stumps and lots more. There’s also a Christmas courtyard at the back of the art gallery where hot food, mulled wine and hot chocolate will be on sale. There are loads of things for kids to do — and people won’t be disappointed.’
The wooden chalets of the St Nicholas Fair — the festive market on Parliament Street, St Sampson’s Square and The Judge’s Lodgings — play a major part in York’s run-up to Christmas. This used to stay in town for just a handful of days in years gone by, but now hangs around for 37. And although some of its 100-odd traders do come over from the continent, the St Nicholas Fair isn’t a German market. ‘It’s not what we’re trying to do,’ says Chris Price, city centre and markets manager at Make It York. ‘One of the things we pride our self on is that there’s a lot of York and Yorkshire produce on display.’ Wherever the traders are from, though, they keep on coming. ‘It’s a beautiful city which lends itself to Christmas,’ says Chris. ‘The big pull is York itself.’
In one York shop, it’s Christmas every day. Käthe Wohlfahrt, the famous German-headquartered Christmas decorations retailer, opened its first and only UK outlet on Stonegate in 2016, and now sells more than 7,500 hand-crafted ornaments in a rabbit warren of rooms in the old Mulberry Hall building. If a visit to this store doesn’t get you in the festive mood, then nothing will because there’s, literally, a seasonal surprise around every corner. Amazingly, managers Helen Dawson and Pam Boulton say their tills are ringing all year round thanks to the large numbers of tourists in town who like to bag a bauble or two, even in May and June but, as you might imagine, right now — when it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — business is positively booming. And the response from shoppers as they step through the door is always priceless, whatever their age. ‘Adults more than children say “ooh” and “ahh” when they walk in,’ says Pam.
Helen and Pam think that York is the picture perfect place for a Christmas shop. Käthe Wohlfahrt’s managing director, Harald Wohlfahrt, agrees with them. It seems he has a love of medieval cities and fell in love with the Mulberry Hall building on his first visit to York 40 years ago. And you can see his point because, the truth is, York is lucky. With its historic architecture, Minster, snickets and alleyways, it looks good all year round. But it provides a charmingly idyllic backdrop at Christmas. ‘Firstly, York is beautiful,’ says Helen. ‘Secondly, there’s so much for people to do when they get here. And all the Christmas events and attractions in the city are really well “joined up” now.’
‘There is something magical about the city at this time of year,’ agrees Maria Farrugia. ‘Its medieval status, its walls, the cobblestones — everything about it makes it a special place to be.’
YORK at Christmas
St Nicholas Fair: November 16th-December 22nd
Thor’s Tipi: November 15th-December 25th
Medieval Christmas Experience at Barley Hall: November 16th-January 5th
York Minster Advent Procession: December 3rd
York Minster Christmas Carol Concerts: December 14th & 15th
Ice Trail: December 9th & 10th
Made in Yorkshire ‘Yorkshire Yuletide Village’: November 16th-December 22nd
Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland at McArthurGlenn: November 18th-January 7th