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When streets lighten up: Christmas markets in Germany

Posted on: 5 décembre 2011

In many countries, you just cannot miss the signs of upcoming Yuletide season: strings of the most fairy lights start crowning the streets, shop windows get covered with snowflakes, stuffed with gift-wraps and special offers (“50% off on your second item!”). In Germany, at the offset of the Advent period, you also notice the sudden appearance of tiny floodlit villages: Christmas markets, Weihnachtsmärkte in German, have finally arrived.

A 800-year-old tradition

Christmas markets have first been heard of in so far as the 13th century. Originally German, they were initially set up in order to offer village inhabitants the goods they might need during the cold winter season. One of the oldest Christmas markets, and one of the world’s most famous ones today, is the Nuremberg Christmas market: in the Middle Ages, it was located in front of churches in order to attract worshippers after the mass. For craftsmen, it was a great opportunity to secure the loyalty of new buyers. It is not till the 19th century that Christmas markets really became part of cities’ life and turned into what we know today, with an offer much clearlier related to Yuletide celebrations.

That being said, the features of Christmas markets have not changed too much along the centuries. They still are a place where craftsmen offer local products, from scented candles to wooden figurines and knit beanies, and let’s not forget an extended choice of toys and Christmas decoration.

Lebkuchen (Photo 5CIT ISIT)

 

Paris: a Christmas market or just a plain market?

Christmas markets are not uncommon in France, though; I recently got the opportunity to wander through the Christmas market at La Défense, located in Paris’ business district and the biggest in the Parisian region. The West Indian stand was rubbing elbows with the one selling sausages from Toulouse; a few steps away, some stands were offering make-up products stunningly well represented by their saleswomen; another stand was displaying Oriental products, from home design items to hookahs; farther away, a saleswoman was ranting passers-by in a loud voice, praising the qualities of a revolutionary gril pan (“nothing sticks in!”). The atmosphere was significantly more cosmopolitan and between the smells of faux-leather bags, beauty products and exotic dishes, I started feeling something of a headache. So basically, you do not feel as much in a fairyland in Paris as on the Universitätsplatz, in Heidelberg. Abroad, Christmas markets spread later on (around the 18th century), but on a much more commercial basis. The Christmas market in Strasbourg, though, remains a reference, even for Germans, and is the most well-known in France.

On the very famous Marienplatz, in Munich, the smells of grilled sausages, of chocolate pancakes and of irresistible Kartoffelpuffer (see below) mix up in the air. Among the stands, a cup of mulled wine in the hand, you realize that the whole thing is not so much about attracting tourists and visitors by any mean in freezing temperatures: Weihnachtsmärkte are much more a chance to share everyday a warmth and a conviviality that only belong to the most beautiful Yuletide celebrations. 

As a bonus, here is a brief lexicon regarding the “must-dos” on Christmas markets:

  • Glühwein: mulled wine prepared from red wine, lemon, cinnamon and cloves. Kids are not to be forgotten since mulled wine stands always offer Kinderglühwein, an alcohol-free version of mulled wine which is more like a fruity tea. Weißer Glühwein is made with white wine.  You also have to know that every cup of mulled wine goes with a unique customized cup, (see picture) designed for the town you are in and for the current year.
  • Kartoffelpuffer: a potato pancake fried in a pan and to be enjoyed with some applesauce. You will be surprised by how tasty this unexpected mix is.  In Bayern, these pancakes are also called Raibadatschi!
  • Bratwürstchen: the Christmas-market-special hot dog: it is a grilled sausage little sandwich, which you can fill according to your preferences with a Currywurst (curry sausage), a Bratwurst (pork or veal), a Bockwurst/Weisswurst (seasoned pork and veal), a Knackwurst (pork and beef)…
  • Lebkuchen: gingerbread decorated with sweet sentences that will undoubtedly make someone happy.
  • Flammkueche: delicious Alsatian dish made with crème fraiche, thinly sliced bacon and onions.
  • Feuerzangenbowle: “fire punch” prepared with fruit juice and rhum.

 

Christmas - Photo 5CIT ISIT

 

Links:

An overview of Christmas markets in Germany (in English)

A little dictionay of German Christmas terms (in German)

Christmas markets in the UK

How to make mulled wine, by Jamie Oliver

 

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