Growing up in the United States, I was a devout member of the Christmas season. I always tried to pick out the best tree, decorated it to perfection and topped it off with a beautiful star. I brewed homemade mulled wine to fill my house with the scent of Christmas (and to have the odd glass or three) and invited friends over for dazzling Christmas parties. I had every Christmas cd known to man, but I always went back to that one amazing carol, ‘A Winter Wonderland’. It wasn’t until I moved to Germany that I realized they actually exist. If you’ve been to one of Germany’s Christmas markets, you know what I’m talking about. For you newcomers, get your earmuffs on and cameras ready because Santa Claus really lives in Germany.
After four Christmases living here, following the scent of fir sprigs and cinnamon north to south and east to west, I have decorously appointed myself as a Christmas market connoisseur. I can confidently tell you that beyond the myriad of reasons I am so proud to live in Germany, the Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) top the list. From Munich to Dresden and Goslar to Lüneburg, Germany outdoes itself year after year.
During the four-week Advent season, which begins on the Sunday that falls between November 27th and December 3rd each year, you’ll find at least one Christmas market in almost every town and city across Germany. Each Weihnachtsmarkt has its own personality and specialties but you’ll find Potters, Glassblowers, Bakers and Craft Workers at each one, demonstrating their artistry and selling their goods. You may at first attempt to ignore the homemade gingerbread cookies and chocolate covered delights but after your second glass of glühwein (mulled wine) you may find that your self-control has melted down enough that you forgot why you even thought it was a bad idea in the first place. And the reality is that is was NEVER a bad idea. You can drop the guilt at New Year’s doorstep where we all will stand together on our soap boxes and swear away ‘empty calories’ forever. Reconcile any calorie build-up then, but not now; the Christmas markets are no place for worries.
Many cities and towns, like Hannover, transform part of their markets into an alluring fairy forest made from real fir trees, replete with bars hidden amongst them (because what fairy forest doesn’t have a bar) and tables made from tree trunks. Evocative aromas dance through the air teasing you with the smells of delectable glühwein, mouth-watering bratwursts, homemade fudge, and ambrosial roasted chestnuts. I sang ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ at the top of my lungs in church and in my car at least a couple hundred times in my life, but it wasn’t until going to the German Christmas markets that I actually found out what chestnuts really were. A little nut from Heaven is what they are. Hand delivered by the Christ Child himself.
Many European countries draw crowds for their traditions but no one does Christmas quite like Germany; and what better place to visit a Christmas market than the country where they originated? In the Late Middle Ages in Europe special winter markets, often open only for a day or two in early winter, offered townspeople a chance to stock up on food and supplies to last them through the cold months. With time, crafts men and women began setting up stands at these winter markets to sell baskets, toys, gingerbread, roasted chestnuts and other baked goods. This was the precursor of contemporary Christmas markets, with the first documented ones in Munich (1310), Frankfurt am Main (1393) and Dresden (1434).
Regardless of which quaint markets in Germany you choose to visit, you will find stunning backdrops, incredible food, a gilded atmosphere, and many nostalgic stalls selling authentic Christmas gifts that are not mass-produced but craftwork of real quality. To experience a real Weinachtsmarkt is to experience a true fairytale, so hopefully this Christmas season I will see you in a lane where snow is glistening; it’ll be a beautiful sight, where we will all be full of delight, walking in a Winter Wonderland…