The Real Deal
Traditional-style Christmas markets can be found all over, but for an authentic experience seek out the best of the German originals
Across Europe, countries have their own Christmas traditions, but some leapfrog borders and become annual staples for people the world over. One such custom is the German Christmas market. Characterised by stalls of handcrafted gifts, baked regional specialities and cauldrons of glühwein, German Christmas markets are atmospheric and festive events enjoyed by many. Aromas and tastes are a key part of the experience, as are the sounds of musicians playing and choirs singing.
But the history of the Christmas market is more prosaic. Rooted in the late Middle Ages, European winter markets allowed townspeople to stock up on vital supplies before the cold months set in. Take a look at some of Germany’s earliest and most authentic Christmas markets, which all have their own backstories and fascinating peculiarities underpinning the extravaganza as they have become.
Taking its name from the original Dresden Christmas stolen, the Striezel, this market has at the core of its celebrations the cutting of the giant stolen. If that’s not eccentric enough, the market is also host to Pflaumentoffelfest – an event honouring the history of the Pflaumentoffel, a decorative chimney sweep figure made out of prunes once sold by children as a good luck charm. Carved wooden ornaments also play a significant part in Striezelmarkt’s history – they were first sold here after the German Peasants’ War when unemployed miners took to hand carving as a way of earning money.
Frankfurt is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany, at over 600 years old. Traditionally, religious mystery plays were performed here, but today you’re more likely to be greeted by merry music around a 30m-tall Christmas tree. Track down Bethmaennchen – traditional Frankfurt Christmas confectionery – loved by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
This year the market brings an international flavor to proceedings with the help of its European neighbours and twin towns. Alongside arts and crafts from local artists, find influences from Latvia, Hungary and Switzerland. The market spreads across several of the town’s central spaces, but the main square is where Santa makes his annual entrance on 6 December. The market can be explored on a guided tour, during which you’ll uncover its history as well as come across traditional local crafts.
The Thuringia region offers a varied choice of Christmas markets. Take Erfurt, which brings bags of historical charm with its blend of medieval and Gothic architecture. St Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St Severus make a magnificent backdrop to this quaint market. Also in Thuringia is the Unesco World Heritage town of Weimar, where you can skate on ice before relaxing with a warm drink in the winter village.