Every country and every family have their own Christmas traditions. For me, Christmas would not be the same if I did not visit a Christmas market or two. I cannot remember when I first visited a Christmas market, but I have memories that go back to my earliest childhood. In particular, of my Irish grandmother’s first and only visit to Germany and visiting a market in Freiburg, where my family was living at the time. I think I must have been eight and I was filled with wonder at the lights and atmosphere.
Over the years, Christmas markets have, of course, taken on a different meaning to that of my childhood. In particular, as a young man, Christmas markets took on a special meaning as a place to meet with friends, often on the way home from work. They are a place to eat some food and enjoy the company of others in a unique way while sipping on a glühwein to keep warm.
For international visitors, the markets offer a unique chance to experience some very traditional food and drink. At the same time, visitors can shop for unique gifts on the many stands. Although the more traditional gifts are probably more popular, the craftsmen and women often have goods you will not find anywhere else on offer.
Although the tradition of these famous markets can be traced back to central Germany and parts of France during the Late Middle Ages, the origin of the Christmas markets is hidden in time. The first mentions of ‘December markets’ date back to as early as 1298 in Vienna, Austria. Similar mentions can be found of December markets in Munich (1310) Bautzen (1384 and Frankfurt in 1393. However, the texts also reveal that these markets were predominantly one day markets, allowing citizens to buy and sell meat in preparation for the Christmas festivities.
The first Christmas market, as we know and love them today, was held in Dresden in 1434. Since then, the Dresden Striezelmarkt is considered the genuine original. Over the years, the Striezelmarkt has developed into a huge event of somewhere near 250 stands spread throughout the city. Lasting for the whole of the Advent period, the market attracts several million visitors each year.
What makes up a Christmas Market?
At the heart of a traditional Christmas Market is the nativity, although nowadays the smaller markets focus around a Christmas tree. This heart is then surrounded by stalls selling food and drink as well as individual vendor stalls selling gifts and Christmas decorations. The largest markets can have hundreds of different stalls as well as fun rides and entertainment for the children, such as merry-go-rounds and puppet shows. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt even has a daily stage show program.
What to Look for on the stands
As you wander around the different market stalls, you will be stunned by the range of Christmas gift ideas. The stands are filled to the brim with traditional as well as innovative designs. As a result, it is hard to pick out any individual items to mention, but there are a few very traditional and special items that you could look out for.
These decorative figurines can be found on every Christmas market, often alongside the famous rauchermann or smokers. The first examples of the nutcrackers can be found in the Erzgebirge region of Germany along the Czech border.
Their popularity grew slowly over the years, however, with the growing popularity of Christmas markets the carvers, selling their Christmas figurines, also offered decorative nutcrackers in their stalls.
When US soldiers stationed in Germany after the Second World War discovered them, the nutcrackers became world famous.
This traditional German Christmas decoration also has its origins among the woodcarvers of the Erzgebirge. Tradition has it that these are to remind us that summer is coming. The design is based on a custom of dancing around the decorated pyramidlike ‘St Johns Tree’ during the summer solstice. Others have argued that this design is the forerunner of the modern Christmas tree. Although most pyramids will fit on a table, you can get them in an amazing range of sizes. Some seem big enough to live in.
Lebkuchen or honeycake/peppercake
Tradition has it, that Lebkuchen, a honey sweetened German Cake, or molded cookie, was first produced by the monks of Ulm. However, it quickly, became popular in the region, and in 1487, the Emperor Frederick III invited the children of Nurnberg to an event where he presented an estimated four thousand cakes bearing his likeness to them.
The traditional place to by Lebkuchen is Nurnberg. However, almost every market has some available, and it can be found in a wide variety of tastes from spicy to sweet. Most of the stalls give out samples and it is easily packed and transported as a gift to bring home. Why not take some for your friends and bring a little taste of the markets back home.
Stollen is a traditional Christmas cake in the German speaking areas. A fruit cake filled with nuts, spices, and fruit covered in sugar icing, and often with a marzipan filling running through the center.
Although stollen is baked in many kitchens around Germany, the center for stollen is Dresden. In Dresden, the tradition of baking stollen reaches back to the 15th century, when a stollen baking was encouraged by the royal court.
Famously, Augustus the Strong, Prince Elector of Saxony, commissioned a 1.7 ton stollen from the bakers guild in 1730. This oversized cake was consumed by the 24,000 guests of his infamous festivities known as the Zeithainer Lustlager. To allow for the baking of the cake, an oversized oven and stollen knife (a guillotine like knife) had to be built.
Today you can buy stollen almost everywhere in Germany and beyond, over the Christmas period. However, many families swear by the Original Dresdener Stollen, and the good news is, it keeps well, so it is not hard to take some home to enjoy.
Traditional Market Foods
The choice of food on offer at the different markets around northern Europe is almost limitless. Depending on your exact location, Berlin would not be the same without a curry wurst, while in southern Germany and Austria, I would miss not having had Käsespätzle.
Some dishes I would recommend trying are;
What can I say about Bratwurst? Every region has their own version of pork or beef sausages fried with a breadroll. Nuremberg is famous for their tiny finger length sausages while Thuringen has its over-long sausage with mustard. Berlin has its own take on things, cutting up the sausage and covering it in a tomato and curry sauce. The local legend tells of US soldiers in Berlin, after the war, wanting ketchup on everything and an inventive local sausage seller developing the tomato sauce and curry mix – it was an immediate hit!
Camembert, breaded and deep fried… what can I say.. divine. Often served with bread and a sweet sauce, the melted cheese melts a second time in your mouth.
Known as Reibekuchen or Kartoffelpuffer, these small pancakes of potatoes that have been fried, are just too good to be missed. I have gone to Christmas Markets and just feasted in good ‘Kartoffelpuffer’ and apple sauce.
A very traditional dish all year round in the mountain regions of southern Germany and Austria, Käsespätzle are homestyle egg noodles in Emmentaler cheese, often served with fried onions on top. This dish is a meal onto itself, well worth trying. You won’t see this dish at every Christmas market you visit but you might run into it in Munich or Salzburg.
You many run into Schupfnudeln on market stands. These are potato noodles usually fried in bacon and served as a side to your main choice. They remind me a little of fried Gnocci.
Mushrooms cooked in an herb, garlic cream. What could go wrong? In fact, they are amazing! Take a roll to soak up the sauce and you have a slightly healthier choice for a great lunch.
Almost every market will have stands selling sweets and treats for young and old. Roasted almonds are probably the most common. Made fresh while you watch, these treats are addictive, beware!
Breads and pizzas
Every market will have a range of breads and bread rolls on offer. In addition, depending on the region, the local version of pizza bread – for lack of a better description – can be found.
Famously, the French, German Alsace regions have Flammkuchen, a mini pizza like pastery, typically topped with cheese, bacon and onion although there are often other options.
Knoblauchbrot, the German version of garlic bread, a really good side to any of the dishes available at the market stands.
In the past, as you visited markets further east, you might occasionally run into a dish with roots in Hungary, Lángos, pieces of fried dough topped with your choice of toppings. Today, I am not surprised to see this popular dish available in many Christmas markets throughout Europe.
What to Drink at the Market
To go along with all this food, you may want something to drink. On other occasions, you may just want to have a drink to keep you warm and worry about food later. But what to choose…
This is probably the most sold drink at any Christmas Market. This traditional mulled wine keeps you warm and wakes the Christmas spirit in anyone that tries it. Drink it while it’s hot, and don’t forget to return the cups and glasses the wine is sold in to get back your deposit. However, if you want to keep the often pretty cups as a souvenir you usually can. For those of you that don’t want alcohol, there are also nonalcoholic versions available.
Although not exclusively a Christmas drink, hot chocolate is definitely a firm favorite with market visitors. Different stands also offer additives such as rum, or Baileys Irish cream (delicious!)
As you wander around the stands, from time to time, you might see a drink catching fire! Feuerzangenbowle is a step up from Gluhwein. A Feuerzangenbowle adds a lump of sugar soaked in rum set on fire…. Light up your market adventure!
Black tea mixed with rum…