Photo courtesy of Mike KnellChristmas markets might be commercial ventures today, but with their coloured lights and candles, sparkle and traditional wooden decorations, lots of food, fun and family, they really do bring back the magic of Christmas and help get revelers in the mood in the run up to the big day.
Christmas markets have been around almost since the dawn of time, well, at least since Medieval times. The oldest Christmas market - or Weinachtsmarkt - recorded is one in Vienna, which was credited as having started in 1294. Then came Bautzen in what is today Eastern Saxony in the east of the country.
Hot on their heels is its more famous cousin in Dresden (also in Saxony) which pulls in about 2 million visitors a year in the four weeks of advent in which its open; the Dresden market is thought to have started in around 1424. Photo courtesy of adactio Saxony today still has many of the most traditional things to be found at a Christmas market, including the wooden carved nut crackers, smoking figures that burn little pyramids of incense to scent the room, and wooden decorations and candle holders to put on the Christmas table.
Other unmissable products at the Christmas markets are caramelized almonds and other nuts, gluehwein, or spiced mulled wine, beer, eierpunsch (egg punch) Christmas cakes and biscuits like Stollen and gingerbread or Lebkuchen, iced gingerbread hearts, and of course sausages and barbecues of all kinds.
Photo courtesy of DaikriegMost German, Austrian and German speaking Swiss cities and villages have a Weinachtsmarkt of their own, and each will have a local flavour, so Koelsch (beer from Cologne) is often served in Cologne and Bonn, typical local food is to be found in Saxony and Berlin, in the Ahrtahl near Bonn in the West of Germany, a celebrate wine region, the gluehwein is made from local grapes and the stalls are staffed by the local wine queens or weinkonigins.
Many local people will meet in the Weinachtsmarkt for an evenings entertainment, drinking at one of the pubs or bars that set up, eating at a different stall each evening and browsing the other shops and stalls on offer. At the weekends, the nearer it gets to Christmas, people actually shop for gifts and special things to take home, but mostly it's a place for fun and entertainment, bringing the season of goodwill to everyone in the town.
Photo courtesy of DaikriegChristmas markets are such a great tradition that they quickly found themselves spreading around Europe. Alsace in France, once part of the Holy German Empire, has a long tradition of Christmas markets which would set up around the cathedral each year. Romania, which has some German speaking parts to it still, has also set up a few Christmas markets now.
The UK, which, apart from its Saxon origins, is never averse to a spot of commercialization, has done the tradition proud, opening up bigger and better markets each year, from Lincoln to Liverpool to Manchester to London and Norwich. Now that German food and culture is becoming trendy, London's Hyde Park hosts its own version of a super special German Christmas market which you can visit in December if you happen to be in London.
Birmingham's one in 2011 was the biggest in the country and also pulled in a couple of million visitors in the four weeks it remained open. In some fairs you'll find German traders travelling across Europe to sell their products in the UK or France, in others you'll find local craftspeople and farmers selling their wares in a kind of Christmas themed farmers market.Photo courtesy of curran.kelleher
Wherever you happen to be in Europe, these markets are a must visit for pretty things and to help you get into the spirit of the season, but for the best ones, it has to be Germany, Austria or Switzerland where you'll be warmed up and danced round the square as the bands play and the lights glisten in the cold frosty air.