The origins and history of the German Christmas Markets
by Isabelle Eva Bohrer
Nowadays, it is easy to keep warm during the winter. Thanks to heaters of all kinds, you can survive the winter months without shivering. However, this was not always the case. Not too long ago, inhabitants of cold countries had to find other ways to keep warm. Setting up fires was one option. But a significantly more celebratory one was Christmas markets.
Many people might think that Christmas markets came about to celebrate Christmas. However, if you really read the history, this was only a secondary purpose. The markets didn’t come about as Christmas markets as such. Instead, they were winter markets in more general terms, specifically serving the purpose of combatting the cold.
In Germany, inhabitants would come together to huddle around fires and sip “Glühwein,” literally meaning “glow-wine.” Already in the 14th century, the markets served as a place to purchase goods that would keep them warm during the long winters. From furs and hats to coats and gloves, just about any item that would protect you from the wind and snow was sold. In addition, the outdoor markets were a place where you could find handicrafts, such as woven baskets or artisan toys. To keep energized, people would stock up on baked goods, such as the typical German gingerbread (“Lebkuchen”). If you wanted something savory, simple hot meals, such as sausages and soups, could be eaten at the stands as well.
The 21st century version
As time went by, the markets became an important event approaching Christmas Eve. Today, thousands of tourists flock not only to Germany, but also to Austria and Poland to visit these kinds of markets. In fact, sometimes it may be that more English, Spanish or Japanese is being spoken at the markets than German.
Over time, the markets have also become more commercialized. Glowing lights have been added, as have more modern cooking tools and heaters. But that doesn’t mean that the traditions have been overtaken completely.
It is worth noting that there are hundreds of different markets in and around Germany. Clearly, some are more well-known than others, and they also vary in size. In fact, there are even significant differences in their names. While some are explicit Christmas markets (“Weihnachtsmarkt”), others are called “Christkindlmarkt,” which refers to the angel that provides children with presents on Christmas Eve. Others, in turn, go by the name of “Adventmarkt,” meaning advent market.
Planning your trip
Due to the popularity of travel during the Christmas season, which includes visiting the markets, it is advantageous to plan ahead.
As mentioned above, there are a plethora of Christmas markets in and around Germany, so you might be asking yourself “where do I get started?” Here are some of the most famous Christmas markets to choose from:
Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt in Nürnberg. This market is one of the most well-known versions, especially since it includes the figure of a “Christkind,” represented each year by a young girl.
Christkindlmarkt in Munich at the Marienplatz. This market originated in the 14th century, when it was called the “Nikolausmarkt,” meaning “Santa Claus market.” With the influence of Protestantism in the 19th Century came the transition from the Nikolaus to the Christkind as the one who brings the gifts. In Munich thus happened what had already occurred in the 16th century in cities such as Nürnberg and Straßburg: the Nikolausmarkt became the Christkindlmarkt.
These are the most well-known markets in Nürnberg, Munich and Cologne. However, each city is also home to numerous other versions. In Munich, for example, you can head to the Wittelsbacherplatz square to go to the Mittelaltermarkt, which literally means “medieval market.” Here, you can revel in traditional goods, sold at reconstructions of medieval stands. All the vendors are even dressed in medieval clothes!
If possible, come visit on a weekday, as weekends are particularly crowded. Moreover, the closer you get to Christmas, the more hectic it becomes as everyone is rushing to buy last-minute presents. If you can, buy your presents early so you won’t have to be in a hurry.
Once you are there
Visiting a Christmas market has, as already mentioned above, become more and more of a commercial event. However, you can still relish the old traditions.
Be sure to try the local foods, such as the Lebkuchen (typical baked goods) and Rostbratwürstchen (grilled sausages) from Nürnberg and the typical Maroni (chestnuts) offered almost at all German, Austrian and Swiss markets. At the latter, a Raclette (bread dipped in cheese) will surely warm you up as well.
As for drinks, adults should try sipping Glühwein and Eierlikör (egg-nogg liquor) and the children should head for Kinderpunsch (children’s fruity “glühwein” without alcohol) – there’s something for everyone! Most of all, the idea is to have a good time with friends and family.
Last but not least, dress warm. Wearing ski pants has even become an option for some, especially little kids.
All in all, the goal is to forget the Christmas stress and relax!