The lights, the smells and the sounds of Christmas bells! Known for pulling out all of the stops during the holiday season staging the German Christmas markets, every year Germany draws tourists in droves to stroll, eat, and enjoy the treats of the holidays.
Most markets start the last week of November, and run through the end of the year. They are generally held in traditional squares, ringed with government buildings and Cathedrals illuminated or decorated for the season.
Frivolity Abounds at German Christmas Markets
Music and fun surround you at a German Christmas market. Local performers stroll, singing the music of the season. The larger markets include a children’s area with old-fashioned arcades and rides that look like they have been in use for a hundred years. The center of many markets transforms into a skating rink where visitors drink mulled wine while watching the skaters twirl.
Actors on a large puppet stage present silly shows that make children and adults alike laugh with joy. Tucked away in a corner of the market a large wooden crèche reminds the market visitors of the religious traditions of a bygone era. The one thing that you will not see is a Santa Claus with reindeer and elves, although there are many representations of Father Christmas among the decorations.
German Christmas Markets Shopping
Markets filled with stalls selling hand-made glass ornaments include costly one of a kind pieces hand-blown in Germany. Expect to pay at least 25E and upwards for these ornaments, but smaller versions from China can be as low as 3E each.
Sellers bubble-wrap your purchase so that it arrives home safely. But, if you purchase something very fragile, be prepared to pay extra to receive an additional wrapping and a box.
The markets in the larger towns, generally more sophisticated, sell a higher level of hand-made goods. The Berlin market includes a special pavilion for juried crafts such as wooden carved furniture, crafted clothing and leather goods, and weavers. Unfortunately, this translates to higher prices as well—it is not unusual to see price tags of several hundred Euros for woven jackets or beaded purses. In contrast, even the smaller towns put up a few stalls in the main square for the local crafters to sell their small knitting items and handmade soap available for a few Euros.
Christmas Market Food
The main event at any Christmas market? Food traditionally brought out for Christmas celebrations: meats, chocolate and cheeses. Oh, the smells of a large metal skillet, the size of a formal dining table, in the middle of a stall full of sizzling brats, sausages and sauerkraut. The edge of the skillet holds homemade buns, toasting.
For a small token of 3E the server grabs a brat, smothers it with tangy mustard, and throws it into a bun. One bite makes anyone a lifelong believer in the power of crunchy, spicy German brats! And when it is time to go home, the locals buy the freshest of meats and cheeses for celebrations at home.
To finish the meal, a trip to the sweets area of the market yields a stick of strawberries covered in deep, dark chocolate.
Repeat every two hours and the day goes by swiftly and with joy. Another favorite for me – a pastry made from dough, smothered in butter, cinnamon and sugar, then wrapped on a large stick and toasted over open coals. The outside becomes crunchy, but the inside remains soft and sweet.
Don’t forget that to accompany the food a variety of alcoholic drinks available will certainly warm up your toes. One very busy stall, the Rum Klosterstubchen (Rum Seller), seemed to have many repeat customers!
Every drink stall commissions a specially designed mug to sell their famous mulled wine. Customers pay 5E for the drink and keep the mug as a souvenir, or give back the mug and receive 2E in return. Etched glass adorns some of the mugs, others display brightly colored winter scenes, and others proclaim traditional religious messages.
These specialty mugs are dated, so one purchase each year will eventually create a mug collection full of many happy memories.
Insider Tips for the Best Possible Christmas Market Experience
Be aware that there will be few if any places to sit and rest at the German Christmas Markets. Most of the food stalls simply have standing counters sprinkled around their stalls for those who want a place to put their cup while they eat. If you have mobility problems and need to sit at regular intervals, plan ahead by scouting out a nearby café or even a McDonald’s. Some of the larger markets provide more permanent type restaurants with indoor seats, but these are generally more expensive and used for large meals, rather than to get a cup of coffee and rest.
Don’t be daunted by the large number of stalls at the markets in the bigger towns. With multiple entry points at the larger markets, the same stalls often repeat at each entrance. The food stalls are generally at the entry points, with the craft and entertainment stalls closer to the center since many local residents will run over to catch a bite and a drink at lunch or after work. Look for a map posted at each entrance to help you figure out what direction you want to take.
The multiple markets at the larger towns (Berlin, Munich and Dresden), specialize in a particular emphasis. A traditional market might have a focus on centuries-old versions of meats, cheeses and sweets, while a newer market might emphasize the German version of “Farm to Table” focusing on less fatty products and vegetable dishes.
Caution at the Market
Note: in light of the disturbing news of a terrorist attack at the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, please note these additional tips:
• Always check out the map at the entrance to locate the exits in the event of the need for a quick evacuation.
• Know where to find the nearest subway or trolley so that you can easily leave the area. You can’t count on finding a taxi if hundreds of people are leaving all at once. If the nearest public transportation is more than a block or two away, locate a restaurant or café to serve as a meeting point for everyone in your party.
• Find the location of the local security and observe them as you stroll the market for any activity that would signal a need for additional vigilance. Watch out for any unusual crowd activity or noise which might signal a problem. If you feel uncomfortable, take a break where you can get out of the crowds and spend a few minutes observing the mood and energy of the market.
Prepared for any eventuality, enjoy your German Christmas Market experience like thousands before you.
Note: All photos taken by the author.