While Christmas markets may be new concept for many Americans, the tradition goes back centuries in Europe, where countries including Germany, France, Austria and Italy have perfected the art of holiday celebrations. Hosted in the weeks before Christmas known as Advent, these pop-up street markets are as interesting and diverse as they are steeped in local history and culture.
History of Christmas Markets
The oldest Christmas markets were first experienced in Germany, Austria, and northern Italy as early as the late middle ages. A handful of smaller markets were also observed in the eastern provinces of France in a similar period. The earliest noted market has roots to Austria in 1294!
Originally these markets were just part of a larger outdoor market system in which vendors sold handmade goods to villagers. The opening of the Christmas market was meant to signal the start of Advent, and came as a welcome distraction to the long winter evenings and often harsh weather. The markets, originally just a few days in length, gave villagers an excuse to socialize and share experiences over common custom and food. While today’s markets often feature vendors from around the world, the original markets only allowed handicrafts made by local artisans to be sold, making each market truly unique and inspired by the village or town that hosted it.
Christmas Markets Today
Today the markets are generally held in the town square of these cities and feature hand carved wooden toys and Christmas trinkets. Designed as an open air shopping experience held in tents, the traffic is limited to only pedestrians, creating an ambiance of community and spirit as shoppers move from tent to tent. The air is often filled with the sweet scents of seasonal food and drink and sounds of traditional holiday tunes being sung by children’s choirs or other musicians. There is often dancing as well.
It is most impressive to attend the opening night of a Christmas Market as there is often a live action play in which a local child acts out the welcoming and arrival of the Christ child. In some larger markets this live action scene may occur on more than just the opening night.
What to Look for
The real magic of the Christmas Market is the festive cheer they offer visitors. Watch as teenagers and adults alike put down their cell phones in order to embrace the joys of simple toys and traditional foods.
You’ll get the most out of your Christmas Market experience by seeking out the center of the tents, where you’ll often find a nativity scene. Often, this scene plays host to live animals and occasional live actors portraying the traditional Christian vignette of the birth of Jesus Christ. You should also seek out the grand Christmas tree as you wind through the tightly spaced aisles of light trimmed tents.
Popular trinkets include hand carved working nut crackers and Zwetschgenmännle, figurines that are made out of dried plums. Handmade items such as Christmas ornaments grace many tents, as do other toys, books, and other Christmas decorations. Hand blown glass in a rainbow of seasonal colors is also common, and is often being created on site in front of the touring guests.
As with any seasonal market, food plays a huge part in the experience. As for the Christmas Markets, you’ll want to make sure to seek out traditional whole nuts, the perfect complement to those hand carved nutcrackers, as well as other roasted nuts. Candied toasted almonds, cashews, and pecans are often served warm and can be quite memorable to try! The traditional Christmas cookies, called Lebkuchen or Magenbrot, are a customary gingerbread served soft and should not be missed!
Beverages that are often associated with the markets include hot mulled wine, sometimes available with a shot of Brandy, or an egg based alcoholic drink called Eierpunsch.
Which holiday market tops your list? Tell us in the comments below!