Christmas Markets of Yore in Ye Olde World

Angela Dansby

Imagine sipping Glühwein (hot mulled wine) under the stars, upstaged by millions of Christmas lights in every direction. There are also endless stalls in sight selling hot foods on a stick, twisted, spiced and/or roasted as well as holiday trinkets you don’t need but buy anyway (minus the meter-long Santa hat). The smell of candied almonds and roasted chestnuts compete with melting cheese for raclette. Powdered sugar from Stollen (eggy bread stuffed with dried fruits and marzipan) dust your lips. Similarly, a dusting of fresh snow is on the ground and the air is chilly but refreshing. Throngs of people – yes, other human beings – meander alongside you through the maze of stalls and glittering decorations. These normally annoying crowds now seem inviting …

Pop! The sugar plums in your head just disappeared. Welcome to 2020, the year without a Christmas market. Who stole the Stollen? Not the Grinch … COVID-19. Bah! Humbug!

Germany doesn’t feel or look like itself this holiday season. Normally, it’s the darling of Europe this time of year with the world’s most – and most famous – Christmas markets. When it comes to drinking outdoors, Germans do it best, starting with Octoberfest. In fact, the first Christmas markets started in Germany: Munich around 1310, Bautzen in 1384 and Frankfurt in 1393. But Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt in 1434 was arguably the first “real” one. (Now in its 582nd year, it’s known for baking the world’s largest Stollen, formerly called Strietzel.)

These Christmas markets were the outgrowth of open-air winter markets that started with Vienna’s December Market in 1296 during the Holy Roman Empire. Duke Albrecht I granted shopkeepers the right to host it for a day or two so townspeople could stock up on supplies for the cold months. After that, winter markets sprung up all over Europe.

Originally, these markets only sold grilled meat but over time, they offered more foods then seasonal treats, decorations and crafts. Meat was often purchased in ye olde days for Christmas dinner to end the advent fast. (Now, it comes on sticks and in “XL” sausages so you can take silly photos with friends.) Churches encouraged these markets to be located near them to try to add to their congregations.

While not tied into Christmas at first, items for the occasion started being sold, eventually changing the market theme and name. The markets got longer and started competing with churches for attention during advent. In the 1500s, gifts were added to Christmas markets when German protestant reformer Martin Luther suggested that the birthday of Christ was better for gift-giving than the days of St. Martin on Nov. 11 or St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 (though St. Nick still leaves presents on this day for Belgian and Dutch kids). Luther suggested children receive presents on Christmas eve from “the Christ child,” hence the name “Christkindlsmarkt” for de facto Christmas market in German.

When my longtime friend, Liz, came over to visit me in Brussels five years ago, this meant “kids in the Christmas market” as in us big kids. We reverted back to our days together as 4-year-olds, skipping and eating our way through the festive Brussels and Cologne markets.

“Mmmmm, this is sooooo good,” I exclaimed after taking a savage bite out of a 2-foot-long stick of chicken.

Liz peered at me through a giant pretzel: “Careful you don’t take someone out with that spear,” she laughed.

This was a real risk as the markets were teeming with screaming kids, Glühwein-guzzling parents, meat-on-a-stick-seeking dogs, canoodling couples, brazen chestnut sellers, power-drilling potato spiralers and jing-ting-tingling charity collectors. It was like a night in Whoville. If Liz and I had gotten separated, it would have been a game of Where’s Waldo on a gingerbread high to find each other.

In Cologne, there’s not just one Christmas market but five connected by a “toy” train (which of course we took as big kids do). To avoid frostbite, you have to go inside to warm up in between them. That can be in any number of well-positioned Glühwein stands.  

“Glühwein time?” I asked Liz after we made our way through two of the markets.

“Ho ho ho!” she said with a wink.

After all five Christmas markets, it was like “ho ho ho and a bottle of rum.” We were tipsy and exhausted. Us big kids turned back into adults (ho hum).

Another massive, impressive Christmas market that I survived was in Strasbourg, France. It made the quaint markets in Aachen and Monheim am Rhein, Germany and Colmar, France suitable for elves by comparison. In Brussels, Luxembourg and London, I experienced something in between along with Ferris wheels. (Oddly, Europeans prefer these wheels in winter.) These are just the Christmas markets I’ve been to while living in Brussels the past six years … many more European cities, towns and villages host them, including a floating one in Leiden, Netherlands and heart-shaped one in Talinn, Estonia. (Incidentally, the world’s first Christmas tree was put up in Talinn in 1441 even though Germany has been credited with the tradition since the 16th century.)

For centuries, Christmas markets have brought cheer to northern Europeans with light, color and music during long winter nights. (Trust me, they are really needed when the sun sets at 5 pm!) In recent decades, several cities in the United States and Canada have also held them. They normally signal the beginning of the holiday season. Unfortunately, this year, a second wave of COVID-19 did.

Alas, ‘tis the season to be merry indoors with your inner circle, experiencing Christmas markets virtually. (Yes, Santa thinks of everything and keeps up with technology.) When you get cabin fever, think of the magical Christmas markets and let “sugar plums dance in your head” with homemade Glühwein and Stollen instead.

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