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Germany's Christmas Markets

It's the most wunderbar time of the year! Make a plan to spend part of December exploring some of Germany's many and varied Christmas Markets.

We’ve had the opportunity to visit no less than seven Weihnachtsmarkts in different cities and towns in south Germany this year.  When we lived in Stuttgart 14 years ago, we loved its Christkindlmarkt, one of Germany’s largest, and also visited one other city.  This time around, we were determined to sample a wider variety of these outdoor winter festivals, and we were lucky to see some very choice examples.

Our first of the season was in Heidelberg, the charming tourist town every American visits.  We had visitors from the US that weekend, and we wanted to show them one of these markets.  Heidelberg’s was among the few to open before November 28 (when the vast majority opened).  The open squares strung along Heidelberg’s main street were filled with a small but satisfying selection of food and gift stalls, in the charming setting which Heidelberg does so uniquely well.  We heard lots of American voices during the afternoon but as evening came on, more and more locals came out to enjoy the Gluhwein and sausage together.

We happened to be visiting Saarbrucken a few days later and took the opportunity to see what its Christmas Market was like.  Saarbrucken has long been desirable to both France and Germany for its former coal and steel industries, but it’s not much of a tourist town.  The weather was terrible—rainy and chilly—and it was a weekday afternoon so the crowds were thin.  However, there were plenty of nice holiday stalls (we bought some “handmade” French sausages) as well as the most attractive rubbish bins I’ve ever seen.

On purpose to enjoy the Weihnachtsmarkt, we went to Nuremburg for the opening night.  So did all of Nuremburg, and probably every other American in Germany that day.  The place was mobbed.  The market was much larger than any we’d seen, and very beautiful in its Hauptmarkt (and other squares) setting.  For the opening ceremony, all the lights of the stalls were turned off, and children’s choirs sang familiar German carols.  A lovely young woman appeared dressed as the Christmas Angel (we of course couldn’t see her) and read a long poem about inviting Jesus and his mother Mary to come enjoy the Nuremburg Advent Market.  As soon as the last carol ended, the lights came back on and the crowds mobbed all the food and drink stalls.  In Nuremburg, we spent more than a day trying to see everything in the  amazingly extensive collection of the German National Museum, which showcases the history of the Germanic peoples of the area from 5,000 BC to the 20th Century.  While I loved eating the pork Shashlik in the Christkindlmarkt, I could have done without the crowds.

We also spent a day in Augsburg, an extremely old town south of Nuremburg and about 45 minutes west of Munich in Bavaria.  One of Germany’s oldest Christmasmarkts, documented back to over 500 years ago, Augsburg sets firm standards for the ratio of food and drink stalls to gift stalls (high) and the  percentage of goods handmade in Germany (also high, and high quality).   We timed our arrival so that we could view Augsburg’s Angel performance on a weekend evening at 6 o’clock.  Twenty-four girls with grace, beauty, and musical ability are chosen to wear angel costumes and blond wigs, and to appear at the windows in Augsburg’s fine Renaissance City Hall.  They mime playing musical instruments to the sacred music of (in this case) Bach, and the whole thing lasts about 10 minutes.  It was unique!  Plenty of locals came out to enjoy the performance and one another’s company over a mug of Gluhwein or Christmas Punch.  And the gifts for sale were so nice we bought quite a few to bring home with us.

We felt obligated to visit Karlsruhe’s Christkindlmarkt since we have enjoyed living there so much this year.  Our building managers were touchingly excited about the display of lights and the charm of the market stalls, and their excitement proved to be well-founded.  We went there on a weekend night, and it seemed the whole city was out there, hanging out in the Gluhwein areas, shopping, or ice-skating.  It reminded us of Munich’s Oktoberfest:  attractive to visitors, but really a city-wide outdoor party.  We found some unique gift items, as well as more reasons to love this livable city.

Near Karlsruhe is Durlach, a town whose founding predates that of Karlsruhe’s.  It’s full of half-timbered buildings, and retains fragments of the old town walls and gates.  Durlach’s Weihnachtsmarkt specializes in harking back to the Middle Ages and had a unique interest and charm of its own.  The stalls are mostly old-fashioned canvas tents, and the amusements are simpler and less glitzy than at “modern” Christmas Markets.  The gluhwein tent had skins on the benches for our greater warmth and comfort.  Stall holders all wore “period” outfits.  It all gave us an idea of what those early Advent markets 500 years ago were like.

Our final Christmas market was in Frankfurt.  Among Germany’s largest, it has a stunning setting in its old city center, and featured a huge, live, and fully illuminated Christmas Tree.  We visited on a Tuesday night, expecting a thin crowd.  Not so!  Although we heard a few American voices around us, mostly this was a German crowd, meeting friends after work and celebrating the season together.

By our seventh Weihnachtsmarkts, some truths had come home to me.  Germans do love to meet outdoors and party together in any season, and hot mulled wine makes this possible in cold temperatures.  Certain traditional celebrations have hundreds of years of history behind them, and Germans love repeating what was fun in the past.  But I think there’s something more meaningful behind their celebration of Advent, the season when Christians await and anticipate the birth of Christ. Germans have known more recent, and more prolonged, periods of privation than we Americans.  They’ve learned to find joy in just the anticipation of better times to come.  They work hard, save, and conserve, and take the time to build and deepen friendships.  We could all use more of that wisdom in our lives.

Gluhwein (Hot Mulled "Glow" wine)

Ingredients (serves 2-3)

  • 1 bottle of dry red wine (750 ml)
  • one half lemon
  • peel of one orange
  • 2 sticks of cinnamon
  • 2-3 cloves
  • 3 tablespoons of sugar
  • some powdered cardamom (or ginger)

Directions
Heat the red wine in a pot (don't boil). Cut the lemon into slices and add to the wine. Add the cinnamon, cloves, orange peel, sugar and a little cardamom or ginger (to taste). Heat everything for about 5 minutes - do not boil - and let stand for about an hour. Before serving, reheat and strain. Serve in small glasses or mugs. 

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Birdwatcher January 04, 2013 at 12:26 PM
Elizabeth, as a long time (past) resident of Germany, I echo your admiration of the Weihnachtsmarkt. Hey, how about proposing such a festival at our newly developing town square for next year? If they could just get a permit for Glühwein...
Elizabeth Greene Thompson January 04, 2013 at 02:19 PM
What a great idea! I bet there's lots of craftspeople in Acton who'd love to sell their work from an attractive Christmas stall. But you're right, Gluhwein is essential...and there must be something really difficult about the alcohol permit because there's never been beer available at the West Acton Oktoberfest, as there should be!

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