Throughout the Christian world, the four weeks of Advent are embraced as a time of worship in remembrance of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. It’s also the time for the yearly tradition of the Christmas Market, known by names such as Christkindlmarkt, Christkindlesmarkt, Christkindlmarket, or Weihnachtsmarkt.
Mainly popular in Central Europe, the idea of a Christmas Market is that of a street bazaar set up in a main square of a town or neighborhood. Merchants come to sell ornaments, handmade toys, crafts, and seasonal treats to holiday shoppers.
While these markets have existed since the late 13th century, they’ve only grown beyond Central Europe in the last twenty years. In many parts of German-speaking Europe, the market is also meant to be a more Lutheran symbol of celebrating the gift-giving aspect of Christmas on Jesus’ birthday, as opposed to St. Nicholas Day (December 6).
Shining over the whole market is the Christkind, a beautiful blonde angel who plays a role much similar to the traditional St. Nicholas. She rewards good children with gifts and stands as a shining symbol of the Jesus-factor of the holiday season. In most markets, an actress will dress the part and entertain the children, sometimes side-by-side with actors playing St. Nicholas. Putting religious beliefs aside, the Christkind adds a wonderful festive air to the occasion.
Why go to a Christmas Market?
Granted one could find gifts, ornaments, and even traditional holiday goodies around many stores in most cities and malls. Regardless, I think the annual Christmas Market is worth the visit. The artisan-level quality of the food and goods is unmatched compared to most stores. Zuzana and I have a yearly tradition where we will buy a hand-made wood ornament to hang on our tree. If wood isn’t your forte, then there are also usually craftsmen there who sell a myriad of glass-blown ornaments.
The offerings go beyond ornaments. Ever fancied one of those traditional Christmas pyramids? You know, the one that looks like a wooden spinning fan on top of a decorated tower? You’ll find some of the most beautiful ones at a Christmas Market. Woven scarves and hats are also sold, as well as wooden incense holders, European chocolates, craft foods, and much more.
Beyond the shopping, the seasonal entertainment is also a wondrous addition worth seeing. Full choirs, actors, musical groups, street performers, and carolers are booked and perform on various days throughout the season. Show up any day to a Christmas Market, and it’s always a surprise for both young and old.
What to try
Of course this is a food blog, which is why I saved the best for last. A Christmas Market is the ideal space to try the many varieties of German street food as well as local favorites (depending on where you’re at). If you plan on visiting a Christmas Market, bring your appetite, and contemplate trying one or more of the following:
Mulled Wine: Known in Germany as glühwein (“glu-vine”) or glögg (“glewg”) in the Nordic region, it’s a fruity red wine heated with a myriad of seasonings such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Many Christmas Markets will sell this elixir in souvenir cups worth keeping. If you try nothing else, then make sure to get a cup of mulled wine. Many markets will also offer non-alcoholic versions if you wish.
Schnitzel: Granted this is easy to make at home, but at the market they’ll serve it on a bun with your choice of condiments. Some will also top with sauerkraut for a sour, citrusy counterbalance.
Leberkäse: (pronounced “lee-ber-keys-eh”) I’m going to be showing you how to make this next year, but imagine a German meatloaf made of beef, pork, and bacon, seasoned with marjoram. The meats are blended and ground smooth to a bologna-like texture. The loaf is cooked to perfection, sliced thick, and served on a kaiser roll with sauerkraut. Pure meaty heaven.
German Sausages: If all else fails, then you can’t go wrong with traditional sausages such as bratwurst, weisswurst, frankfurters, and other local specialities.
Potato Pancakes: These are not your typical hash browns. Thick and crispy on the outside with a soft interior. Ketchup is a nice addition.
Crepes: They come in both sweet and savory varieties, but the special trick is in how they fold them and wrap them so you can eat them with your hands. It’s an ideal choice for those seeking something lighter.
Stollen: German fruitcake made with dried fruit and marzipan, covered in powdered sugar. I’d suggest buying one to go and sharing at home with family.
Strudel: Nothing compliments the mulled wine better than a nice warm slice of strudel. You can go with the traditional apple, but I’ve found sweet poppyseed a pure ambrosia in the market.
Gingerbread: Maybe you have felt lukewarm about grocery store gingerbread treats in the past, but the homemade goodness of a market is a far better. Buy something small and give it another chance.
Most markets outside of Germany will also have vendors offering local specialities specific to that country. Beyond the food to eat on the spot, markets will also usually have vendors selling roasted nuts, marzipan treats, artisanal food items, and especially European chocolates. This might all seem like a lot, but it’s a good reason to go back every year and try something new.
If you’re looking for a Christmas Market in your neck of the woods, Wikipedia has a very solid list of markets around the world.