No matter what the name, the setting for each is essentially similar: Imagine a wonderfully decorated street market, frequently located in an historic town square or medieval castle grounds in an old town center open to pedestrians only. Carts and open-air stalls selling food, drink (particularly hot mulled beverages!) and handmade crafts and gifts fill squares, alleys and entries. Often, there are old-fashioned carousels and Christmas scenes. The air is filled with the scent of hot spiced wine and ciders, roasting chestnuts, and pine trees accompanied by the sounds of traditional Christmas carols, and people chattering and laughing. Snowflakes often drift downward, begging to be caught by a mitten-covered hand.
The Christmas markets are typically associated with the celebration of Christmas during the four weeks of Advent with parades and special events on opening days in late November or early December. Most markets close on Christmas Eve, although some of the largest Christmas markets do remain open until Jan. 1.
A number of German towns lay claim to holding the first Christmas market – Dresden, Bautzen and Frankfurt, for example. Suffice it to say, the first recorded Christmas markets were held between 1310 and 1498. Many of the cities and villages that held Christmas markets then, actually still hold them today. Perhaps the most famous of the Christmas markets in Germany are found in the cities of Augsburg, Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund, Dresden, Erfurt, Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremberg and Stuttgart.
Even the largest Christmas markets are incredible places to discover unique and handmade Christmas gifts many created on site by artisans – toys, ornaments, crystals, pottery, wood decorations, and more. But it is the food and drink that fuels the wandering and remains a huge draw for many, including our HI Travel Tales team. She remembers the magical smells and scents of a market when spending her first Christmas away from home as a college student in Heidelberg, Germany.
A few of our favorite foods at German Christmas markets:
- “Gebrannte Mandeln” are roasted, caramelized almonds.
- “Glühwein” is a hot mulled wine. Very tasty, very innocently sweet. And it will go right to your head quickly! Pace yourself.
- “Lebkuchen” (his favorite!) are spicy gingerbread treats. But there is no mistaking this with an over-sugared American gingerbread cookie. Lebkuchen are soft, and more like small cakes. They come glazed, covered or dabbled in chocolate, or shaped like large hearts decorated in frosting with sayings like “I love you” or “Merry Christmas.” They can worn with a ribbon around your neck – until you can’t resist nibbling.
- “Heisse Maronen” are roasted chestnuts (her favorite!).
- And then there is the “Stollen” – a German version of a fruitcake. But, again, do not confuse this with overly sweetened American versions filled with sticky red candied cherries. It is pale, soft and more like a Christmas bread specked traditionally dried fruits and nuts and sometimes with a bit of a marzipan filling.
Thank you to our friends at Wimdu.co.uk for the incredible infographic below showcasing the seven largest Christmas markets around Europe … in no particular order mind you. Happy Christmas market traveling!