If you live in Europe, and even if you don’t, you will be very aware of the German Christmas Markets that will have started up everywhere in the past week or so. They are not just in Germany, they now have them in the UK (I believe Birmingham has the biggest – I am sure Ivor will correct me if I am wrong here), in the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, France and probably lots of other countries.
So, you might well be asking, what’s all the hype about with these markets? These days it seems it is almost a mandatory thing to at least visit one market during the month of December; and there is nothing wrong with that.
When I grew up in Germany it was one of my favourite things to visit during the lead up to Christmas. Back then, most of the stalls were selling Christmas decorations, gifts (that one actually wanted and needed), interspersed with some food and drink stalls. My parents, who still live in Germany, complain about the fact that today’s markets have predominantly food and drink stalls, with a few stalls selling actual Christmas items or gifts. They, along with many others of their generation and mine, yearn for the old days when a Christmas market had something to offer that did not involve stuffing your face with food and getting sloshed.
The last time we visited a proper German Christmas Market was back in 2007; we met up with family and friends in Cologne. Cologne is famous for its seasonal markets; yes you read correctly, markets – plural. Cologne boasts more than 6 different markets, dotted around the city, and all of them have a different look and feel to them, with one of them being on a large river cruise boat. Whilst the Glühwein and Bratwurst stalls were plentiful, Christmas gifts and decorations stalls were in the majority. It was a joy to walk around and pick out gifts and other items you wanted to take back home for yourself. Despite it being a busy time of year, we didn’t feel crowded (apart from the boat, there just wasn’t enough space) and were able to take it all in without having to do the crowd shuffle. Well, when I say it wasn’t crowded, I should mention that during our foray into the city center to do some shopping in a few department stores, we experienced a human traffic jam. The pedestrianized zone (Fuβgängerzone) in the center was so packed with people that we literally couldn’t move at one point. I remember my Dad organizing us all into one long line, holding on to one another, him having taken our then 8-year-old daughter firmly into his arms. He got his elbows out and with his usual aplomb steered us all out of this sea of humans. We finally made it to our chosen store in one piece, everybody accounted for; none of us had ever experienced anything like it!
But back to the markets. One of my favourite ones in Cologne was the Nikolausdorf (St. Nick’s Village) Market. Each stall had figures from a different fairy tale on their roof and most of the stalls were geared towards the kids. The main action however happens near the world-famous Cologne Cathedral where a huge Christmas tree is the center with the stalls all spreading out from that center around the cathedral. One famous shop that can be found here is the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop. This is a family run German company specializing in Christmas decorations and Christmas items. Their flagship store is in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, in south Germany. It was their first shop and from its humble beginnings has grown into a year-round tourist attraction. The company is represented at nearly every large Christmas Market in Germany; from Hamburg and Hannover (my home town) to Berlin, Rothenburg and Essen, and everywhere in between.
I remember visiting their store in Rothenburg when I was on a school trip to that town as a teenager. We visited in the summer and all thought it was amazing to have a shop where it was Christmas all year-long.
Christmas markets as we know them today actually started off as street markets in the late Middle Ages. Most often than not these would only be for a day or two and were mainly organized to help people stock up on food and supplies ahead of the bitter cold winter months. One early example of such a market was Vienna’s Dezembermarkt, which was first held anywhere between 1294 and 1296 (records are slightly sketchy on the exact year). Eventually these markets evolved into a Christmas market in the German-speaking part of Europe. According to certain records Dresden, in Germany, can lay claim to the first genuine Christmas Market, having established its Striezelmarkt in 1434. This market started life as a meat market, where local folk would come and chose their festive roast the day before the feast. The market was so popular that over the following years it expanded to include other product lines.
Another adaptation of these markets were the Frost Fairs, the most notable ones held on the frozen River Thames, with the first recorded Frost Fair having taken place in 1608 and the last one in 1814. The Daily Mail had a great article with some wonderful photos of these fairs in 2013.
For me a Christmas Market will always be part of the advent of Christmas, and whilst I haven’t been to any here in my neck of the woods that takes me back to my childhood memories, they still give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.