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Festivals of Light: Christmas Markets in Germany

The cold, wintery months of November and December are viewed by many as a time for beautiful lights, hot drinks, and keeping warm by a cozy fireplace with loved ones. During the final months of the year, holiday parties with warm foods, gift exchanges, and sugary treats are abundant, and many festive traditions are anticipated by many people with great fervor. Cultures all over the world have a wide variety of customs used to ring in the winter holidays. For those living in Germany, one of the most highly valued and most attended holiday traditions is the Christmas Market.

Christmas Markets, known as Weihnachtsmärkte or Christkindlmärkte [Christ Child Markets] by the local population, are plentiful in cities all over Germany and other Germanic countries. Larger cities often feature many Christmas Markets; Berlin, for example, is hosting 25 Christmas Markets this year, whereas the smaller city of Bremen is only hosting four. The most popular Christmas Markets often have millions of attendees annually — the two markets with the highest attendance rates, hosted next to the Cologne Cathedral and within the city of Dortmond, have approximately four million and 3.6 million visitors respectively. These festivals typically last throughout the Advent season in Germany — beginning late within the month of November and lasting until Christmas Eve — and they are considered by many to be one of the highlights of the holiday season.

Christmas Market at the Cologne Cathedral 

Like many other German traditions, the tradition of the Christmas Market has been a part of Germanic culture for centuries. Although the origin of the Christmas Market is somewhat contested, the German city Dresden has “one of the strongest claims to the first genuine Christmas market.” In 1434, Dresden hosted a Striezelmarkt for the first time, a market that is still hosted in the city today. The Striezelmarkt is named for the abundance of stollen, a traditional German Christmas fruit bread filled with a variety of ingredients, that is sold by a variety of vendors at the marketplace. This Christmas Market features “what is likely to be the world’s largest walk-in candle arch… [in addition to] the Pflaumentoffel, a very historic handcrafted edible figurine made from dried plums. The historical importance of this medieval marketplace draws many attendees from far and wide, and it remains as one of the most popular Christmas Markets in Germany today. 

For those searching for holiday festivities and cheer, Christmas Markets have much to offer. The stalls within these markets are lined with red, green, and a wide assortment of Christmas lights, providing a comforting, nostalgic atmosphere for those wandering through the marketplace. Large nativity scenes and Christmas candle pyramids are proudly displayed, further adding to the festive atmosphere. Many markets put on a pageant featuring a Christkindl [Christ Child], who is often portrayed as an angelic child that delivers gifts to children. Some larger marketplaces even feature rides such as merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels for their attendees. The soft lights, festive decorations, and fantastical attractions harmoniously create a welcoming, nostalgic environment within the Christmas Markets. 

The seasonal food and treats traditionally enjoyed during the holiday season also play a large role within the markets. Vendors’ stalls line the paths of the marketplaces, aesthetically displaying all kinds of festive pastries. Among the most famous and widely-enjoyed treats are decorated Lebkuchen [gingerbread], Speculoos cookies, and stollen, all of which are traditionally favored during the holiday season. For those wishing for a hot meal, savory foods such as bratwurst and a variety of stews are also commonly sold at the Christmas markets. Many vendors also sell hot apple cider and Glühwein [mulled wine], both of which are popular purchases by attendees seeking to stay warm in the midst of the frigid end-of-year weather. The food and drinks sold within the Christmas Markets are extremely popular in Germany, and they hold a special place in the hearts of annual market-goers.

Gingerbread and other treats on display in a Christmas Market stall.

In addition to the food and drinks offered in the markets, many vendors sell handmade crafts and other goods. Many of those attending the Christmas Markets wish to buy interesting gifts for their loved ones, and as a result, craft vendors are plentiful within the marketplace. Goods such as handcrafted soaps, candles, and glass decorations line the stalls, often sold by independent artists and crafters. Arguably the most common goods sold within Christmas Markets, however, are wooden crafts and trinkets. Woodworking is a very popular craft within Germany — most specifically in the city of Erzgebirge, which is known most famously for its wooden figurines that are widely sold throughout the rest of the country. Wooden crafts from Erzgebirge are frequently found within the vendors’ stalls at Christmas Markets, and some of the figurines that are sold are commonly associated with the holiday season. Among the most widely-recognized of these wood-crafted figurines are the Räuchermanner [Smoking Men] — which functions as an incense burner — and the Nussknacker [Nutcracker]. These wooden figurines and their festive association have gained popularity internationally as well, and remain as one of the defining features of the German Christmas Market.

Handcrafted wooden goods on display in a Christmas Market stall.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christmas Market and the comforting, nostalgic ambiance it features is its ability to transcend cultural barriers. Many tourists from countries all over the world visit German Christmas Markets, seeking to partake in the holiday delicacies, handcrafted goods, and festive environment they possess. Some countries have even begun hosting Christmas Markets of their own, inspired by the German tradition. Even to those unfamiliar with the German language and culture, the Christmas Market provides a unique, enriching experience by blending aspects of German culture with a warm and inviting atmosphere that people from all walks of life can appreciate. Christmas Markets overflow with the spirit of the holidays, and they are the embodiment of all that makes the holiday season special.

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