Written by Joseph M Gaffney
Part One of Three
Advent (“der Advent”) is the Christian religious period beginning four Sundays immediatelypreceding Christmas and, to the Christian residents in many European countries, the approach of Advent means the so-called Christmas Markets are in the offing.
Christmas Markets comprise all sorts of retail stalls offering traditional Christmas-related items as well as food and drink, e.g., Christmas pyramids, carved nutcrackers that are both useful and superb examples of naïve art, i.e., art that celebrates a simplicity of subject matter and technique, incense burners, music boxes, candles, baubles, glühwein (SEE my recipe for Mulled Cider below), bratwurst, Stollen, a dried bread containing dried fruit and often covered with sugar icing or a dusting of powdered sugar, and Lebkuchen, also known as Pfefferkuchen, which is a cookie with a close resemblance to gingerbread. Seasonal candy, usually incorporating almonds and almond paste in varying degrees, is a popular item for locals and visitors alike.
All the markets feature a nativity scene that recounts the story of the birth of Jesus when Mary and Joseph return to their home village for the census.
Of course, there is also a great deal of singing and dancing, sometimes spontaneous, but usually organized by various of the sponsoring towns’/cities’ religious and civic groups.
Christmas Markets’ popularity started in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the early 15th century and slowly spread and peaked over much of Christian Europe during the subsequent 150 years. Of course, there’s still controversy as to which was the first Christmas Market in Germany. Imagine a lively debate nowadays about that unimportant point after six centuries! Dresden routinely claims the honor, arguing that its Christmas Market opened in 1434, but Bautzen, in eastern Saxony, rejects Dresden’s claim in light of having its own Christmas Markets fifty years earlier. Munich points to its Christmas Markets having begun in 1310 and Frankfurt enters the argument by claiming a Christmas Market in 1393. The debate has all the passion and importance of a schoolyard controversy and is always a great deal of fun for the newspapers.
All the various cities pooh-pooh each others’ historical claims, but it’s mostly well-meant community spirit and loyal fans merely cheering for the home team. The important point is that each of the more than three dozen chief Christmas Market cities sincerely believes that its Christmas market is the best and the only way to judge is to visit them all. Oh, that that were possible!
Arguably, the Christmas Markets of Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Dresden, Nuremberg, Erfurt, and Augsburg are the best known and most popular, but, since Germany has more than three dozen Christmas markets—indeed, Berlin has four quite large Christmas Markets of its own—one needn’t be too concerned if schedules and weather preclude your visiting them all. It’s safe to assume that, whichever Christmas Markets you visit, your experiences and memories will delight and buoy your spirits. For a list of the 39 main Christmas Markets in Germany, see Wikipedia.
Be prepared for crowds when you visit a German Christmas Market. Each Christmas Market features a huge decorated Christmas tree and hundreds of stalls selling everything you can imagine for the Christmas holidays to the millions of visitors. The most famous are also the most crowded. More than two million visitors pass through both the Nuremberg and Dresden Christmas Markets every year, but the Christmas Markets at Frankfurt and Stuttgart host more than three million tourists and shoppers every year. The largest of the German Christmas Markets are in Dortmund, with more than three and a half million visitors, and Cologne, with more than four million tourists and shoppers. The Christmas Markets are very, very popular.
Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt’s Mulled Cider
150 g brown sugar (real brown sugar!)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
3 Cinnamon sticks
Dash of nutmeg
1.9 liter sweet, clear cider (“der Apfelmost” [alkoholfrei])
Combine cider and brown sugar in a double boiler (“der Wasserbadtopf”). Heat until the sugar is fully dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients and simmer (double-boiler water should boil robustly) for at least 10 minutes. It should become quite aromatic.
Strain and return to the double boiler. Turn off the heat, but cover to keep warm. Serve “as is” (“Istzustand”) to children; add a jigger of peppermint schnapps to adult cups. Make sure you have enough of everything. It’s ideal for blustery winter days and nights.