Germans are experts at celebrating Christmas. They invented the Christmas tree, and they invented the Christmas market. If you’re travelling during the holiday season, visit one or two of the markets to make the most of the festive atmosphere.
The Christmas markets go back to the Middle Ages – the first documented mention of one comes from Dresden, in 1434. Many of them still retain a strong traditional flavour, with local craft work on sale. You’ll find hand carved figures for Christmas cribs, wooden toys, and handmade decorations for the Christmas tree.
Eat, drink and be merry
Traditional food and drink is another focus of the Christmas market. You’ll find savoury sausages, and sweets including roast almonds, chestnuts, and apples, with traditional gingerbread (Lebkuchen). Wash it all down with a cup of Gluhwein – hot, spiced wine, just what you’ll need if it’s snowing.
The most famous of all the Christmas markets is Nuremberg, which dates from 1628. Nearly 200 stalls make it “a little town of wood and cloth,” bringing the city’s main square to life. Little figurines made of prunes are one of the traditional specialities here, and there’s a carousel with reindeer instead of the usual horses to ride. Don’t miss the Gothic Schone Brunnen (beautiful well), a fine fountain with ornate carving and figures of philosophers, prophets and famous heroes.
One of the most picturesque markets is held in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, on the ‘Romantic Road’ in Franconia. The ‘Reiterle Markt’ is named after the Teutonic god Wotan, who is said by some to have distributed presents from the back of his horse like a pagan Santa Claus. (In fact, in the original mythology he rode to collect the souls of the dead from the battlefield – but that’s not a very Christmassy thought.) On the main square in front of the Renaissance city hall, the market is one of the oldest in Germany, going back 500 years.
A more modern and cosmopolitan Christmas market happens in Rudesheim’s old town; the market includes an Asian Christmas as well as an African section. A cable car leading up to the higher areas of the city offers a fine view, and since Rudesheim is in the middle of the Rhine vineyards, there’s a chance to taste the local white wine. Then on St Thomas’s Day, the 21st December, there’s a splendid spectacle as all the ships on the Rhine are illuminated and fireworks are set off.
One city, six markets
While most German cities have a Christmas market, Cologne is exceptional in its enthusiasm for the festival – it has six! The oldest is the one on Neumarkt, by the church of St Aposteln, but perhaps the best known is just outside the cathedral. Don’t miss the medieval market outside the chocolate museum, with stallholders and musicians in medieval costume and some of them even speaking medieval Germany. 2 million visitors throng the Cologne markets every year and it’s easy to see why.
These are only a few of the Christmas markets, and they all have their own secrets. Augusburg for instance features angels flying in the air above the market; Esslingen has a medieval market stretching from the town hall all the way to the old harbour; and Hamburg has a focus on arts and crafts from all around Germany and even Austria.
The Christmas markets start in late November, and continue up to December 23rd – but they’re closed for Christmas Eve, which Germans usually celebrate at home. Check the dates on the Christmas Markets web site.
Christmas all year round
Missed your chance to travel to Germany this holiday season? All is not lost. Head for Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where even though the Christmas market will have been dismantled, the Christmas Museum is open all year round.