Winter Christmas Markets

What’s your favorite way to mark the holiday season each year? Long before the days start getting colder and shorter, I’ve already started dreaming of winter festivities and travel plans. Nothing says the holidays like a visit to the Christmas markets in Europe! I want to share with you some of the yuletide markets I’ve visited in Germany, and why I love them so much.

History and Tradition.

The custom of the holiday market goes back to medieval times, when the community was able to gather at the market square to stock up on provisions for the winter. Butchers, bakers, candlestick makers… you get the idea. Today, most European cities with a Christmas market tradition will have several different markets spread about the city, in the main old town square as well as smaller squares. These markets may have special themes, such as a children’s market, a market dedicated to a saint or significant figure, a market located in a palace or important building (usually charging a fee), a special artisan crafts market, a market with stalls representing nations around the world, and more.

What better way to see a city than when it’s all decked out in its holiday best? Walk through the market squares, browsing cheery stalls and sipping mulled wine, and take in the city’s historical landmarks and proud sense of community at the same time. You can often find free concerts in the churches as well, whether it’s a church ensemble, a university group or children’s theatre putting on their best performance for the season.

Shop your heart out.

These days visitors can buy more than just winter provisions at the seasonal market. All sorts of special, high-quality goodies are available from the local craftsmem. You’ll find stalls selling wooden toys, paper lanterns, candles and decorative candle holders, leather goods, cozy socks, hats and mittens, nuts and spices, cured meats and artisanal cheeses, homemade liqueurs, stationary and stamps, pottery and dishes, antiques, handcrafted jewelry, Christmastime baked treats and local specialties, ornaments for your tree and all kinds of festive adornment for your home.

One of the best things I love about the markets is being able to meet the producers and artisans. They are passionate about what they do and can give you great recommendations about what you’re looking for and how to use it. And even if you can’t communicate with them in English, you can sometimes catch them in action – watch the glassblowers, woodcarvers, ironsmiths and others making works of art right in front of you. It’s also great if you have kids with you!

And you don’t have to limit your shopping to just the market stalls either - the shops will be bustling this time of year, so you can take the opportunity to check out some local brands. If you’re in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, you should make a point to visit Käthe Wohlfahrt's, known as “the mother” of all Christmas stores. Also, above this shop you can find the German National Christmas Museum.

Give me all the Kartoffelpuffer!

Besides the endless shopping, and even more important than the shopping let’s be honest, are the infinite opportunities to stuff your face with holiday fare. The Christmas markets are a paradise for feasting and drinking – you get to try local dishes and some special one-time-a-year treats. This is the kind of food and drink that will keep you warm and cozy while you browse and socialize. The spices of mulled wine and the scents of beloved Christmas fair treats permeate the merrily decorated aisles and market squares, so the most important thing to remember is: come hungry.

Some of the staples of the Christmas markets in Germany are Glühwein, mulled wine; Kinderpunsch, a mulled fruity punch for the kiddos; sausages, especially Bratwurst and Rostbratwurst; Reibekuchen or Kartoffelpuffer, deep fried potato pancakes you can top with applesauce; Spätzle, egg noodles served with various additions; sautéed mushrooms in garlic; hot waffles and crepes; sugared almonds; chocolate-dipped fruit; roasted chestnuts; gingerbread; and Christstollen, a dense fruit cake. And that’s all just the tip of the Christkindlesmarkt food pyramid!

Of course, there are some recipes that are especially connected to a certain city or region. Nuremberg is known for its Lebkuchen, big rounds of cookie spiced with a gingerbread blend - these days they can also be found glazed with different flavored icings. Schneeballen (meaning snowballs), are deep-fried rounds of shortcrust pastry, covered in powdered sugar, chocolate or other flavors – these are popular in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. In the city of Aachen, you can find Printen, another type of gingerbread biscuit. Dampfnudel, steamed yeast dumplings bathed in a vanilla cream sauce, are a special dessert found in Bavaria. In Frankfurt pick up a box of Bethmännchen, little biscuit-shaped marzipan treats. If you want the most famous Stollen cake, go to Dresden for their version called a Striezel. And then there’s the king of the sausages, the Thuringian bratwurst – you can find it all over, but to be the real thing it must come from Thuringia – identified by its length and blend of spices heavy on marjoram and garlic. The famous Nuremberg bratwurst – finger-sized smokey grilled sausages – can be served up in a bun from a market stand, or at a restaurant with sauerkraut and potato salad on the side and a horseradish condiment. In Cologne, we found big slabs of salmon being roasted over the open fire, then served on a bun with toppings – delicious and gourmet.

No matter where you go, these seasonal Advent/Christmas/Wintertime markets are all about sharing the holiday spirit and indulging in festive treats. Visiting any of these holiday fairs all around Europe can be a great way to stretch out the Christmas season and make very special memories with your family.