From hand-blown glass ornaments and handcrafted toys to nutcrackers and dollhouses of all shapes and sizes, we found an amazing amount of gift ideas in each Christmas market we visited over the past few years. And food! My goodness, I didn’t realize there could be such a variety to munch as we browsed through an assortment of unique trinkets and one-of-a-kind goods at row after row of elaborately decorated stalls many in the shape of alpine chalets.
First, what is a Christmas market? A bit of history from various sources follows.
AChristmas market, also known as Christkindlmarkt (literally: Baby Jesus Market), is a street market associated with the celebration of Christmas during the four weeks of Advent. These markets originated in Germany, but are now being held in many other countries. I’ve never seen one anywhere except in Europe where they’re prevalent in every city, town, and village. The history of Christmas markets goes back to the Late Middle Ages in the German-speaking part of Europe, and in many parts of the former Holy Roman Empire. The Christmas markets of Bautzen were first held in 1384. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt was first held in 1434. Frankfurt’s market was first mentioned in 1393, Munich’s in 1310, and Augsburg’s in 1498. However, in Austria, Vienna’s “December market” can be considered a forerunner of Christmas markets and dates to 1298.
The markets signal the beginning of Advent, most opening in mid-November and ending on December 25th, with take-down beginning on the 26th. However, we’ve found openin and closing dates vary. On opening night in many towns, onlookers welcome the “Christkind,” the boy Jesus acted out by a local child. We weren’t privileged to see that.
Traditionally held in the town square, the markets have native food, drink, and seasonal items from open-air stalls accompanied by traditional singing and dancing. And, let’s not forget the ice skating rinks. Most markets we’ve seen have them and all age groups enjoy them. I made special note of the very small children who, when they landed on their seat of learning, simply struggled back to their feet and tried again. I was never close enough to hear the exchange of words between adults and children, and wouldn’t have understood them any, but I interpreted the children’s words to be ‘I can do it myself!’ They did.
It’s important to note that regional specialties and organically certified food are an important component of Christmas markets. Quality is a priority even with the numerous craftsmen. The large variety of gift ideas such as woodcarvings, glass balls, ceramics, accessories, hats and gloves, and puppets and dolls dressed in traditional costume, and children’s toys, etc. come mainly from Germany and Europe. We never found anything that looked or felt like dime store junk.
I’ve chosen four Christmas markets that I particularly enjoyed: Cologne, Prague, Vienna, and Monte Carlo.
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The location of the Cologne’s Christmas market is unique in itself. It’s in front of the city’s landmark, The St. Peter and Mary Cathedral, commonly called “The Cathedral.” Many people drive as much as six hours one way for this market, the second best known in Germany. (The first is in Nuremburg. We haven’t been there.) They may be second in that way, but they claim the largest Christmas tree in the Rhineland. The Nordmann fir towers about 25 meters high and is the shining heart of the market, lit up with 50,000 LED lights, a bright landmark in Cologne during the advent season.
When we were there in 2007, the market had 150 designed and decorated wooden pavilions. There are probably many more now. Many of the artisans worked on their crafts with completed items displayed. Wood work predominated, especially nativities, but brilliantly-colored stained glassware also attracted a lot of attention.
As far as I’m aware, Cologne’s varied stage productions with a hundred Christmas performances of music and entertainment is unique for a Christmas market. Besides the largest skating rink we’ve seen, there’s a Ferris wheel and other activities in the fun area.
The food area had tables; however, there were still people walking around munching sausages in buns and sipping hot punch.
For the record, I did not see any pavilion supplying (free or otherwise) any perfume for which Cologne is famous.
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We go now to Prague.
The Old Town Square Christmas market is the prettiest and busiest in Prague. This is the best Christmas market in the Czech Republic and welcomes travellers from all over the world each year. We were among a very large number who were amazed by the beauty of the city under Christmas lights. We may attribute this to the contrast of some areas in the countryside which hold memories of World War II devastation.
Christmas in Prague has its own atmosphere. I credit this partly to the medieval surroundings which dominate Old Town. Although it covers a sizeable area, it had a small town feel, which Prague definitely is not.
The Christmas market consists of brightly decorated small wooden huts. They were nestled around the Jan Hus statue and surrounded by centuries-old Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. A huge Christmas tree dominates the market. It has hundreds of lights and people gathered every evening at five to see the lights switch on. It truly lights up a large part of the city.
A stage accommodates Christmas concerts and short plays in the open air. We enjoyed school choirs and folk groups dressed in traditional costume. It’s so famous that groups travel from all over the country to participate after meeting the requirements.
This market had another distinction. There was an animal stable, where children petted sheep, goats, and a donkey. It also had a large Nativity depicting Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the three kings in a wooden stable.
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Our next Christmas market is in Vienna.
The first “December Market” was held in Vienna in 1298. Vienna currently holds 20 Christmas markets around the city, each with its own distinction. Most Christmas markets open in late November and last through December, closing on the 25th, with a few staying open for New Year’s. Vienna’s prettiest squares transform into magical Christmas markets. The scent of bakery items and hot punch would give Christmas anticipation to the grouchiest Scrooge-like person. We were not among that number. Instead, the aromas enticed us to stay until the last possible minute our tour guide allowed.
The market we chose to attend takes place in front of the Schönbrunn Palace. We browsed the market for a couple of hours after touring the palace. Ours was a nighttime excursion adding mystique to the colorful lights of the market and the palace vying with the stars.
Our guide told us this market consistently ranks at the top of Vienna’s Christmas markets. Compared to other such markets in the city, it also scores high on live music, including gospel, which starts at 6.00 pm. On weekends music events take place from 2.00 pm. When we were there, there were 80 decorated huts and exhibitors from Austria and neighboring countries. I found contradictory ‘facts’ to the effect that, at this market, there are only Austrian artisans and crafts.
This market offers uniquely alpine handicrafts and goods as well as a cultural program with activities and workshops. A major attraction is a hand-made Tyrolean nativity scene. There were also limited edition palace gifts. We purchased the tiny pop-up matchbox nativity for our collection. (See the December 2018 RPG Digest, “Natters of a Nomad.”)
Food is plentiful at every market, but here we found numerous restaurants represented with their typical menu offerings, not simply the usual finger foods and mulled wine.
Also unique (to my knowledge) at this market location is a New Year’s market. The Christmas market closes on December 25th and reopens on the 27th with a different atmosphere. We didn’t experience this, but it seems obvious the Advent music gave way to the live jazz bands for which the city is famous.
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We next visit the Christmas market in Monte Carlo, which some describe as being ‘fit for a Prince’, an obvious reference to the House of Grimaldi. The tiny Monaco principality is now home to the wealthy, famous, and ‘beautiful’ people. Earlier in the day, we toured the area that did not contain homes of those people.
We returned to the ship for lunch, and then walked approximately 10 minutes across the dock to the Christmas market, visible from the ship. It’s unique, in my experience, in that the market lasts a full month, December fifth to January fifth, outside the Advent season dates. The market stretches along the dock, which was colorful and interesting with several yachts in various sizes.
This is unlike any other market we’ve seen, but, contrary to Internet sources, I saw no reason to believe the ‘high rollers’ had anything to do with it. Although artisans displayed their creations in what appears to be permanent small huts (we purchased a small nativity in a ‘snow’ globe), the atmosphere was more like a carnival.
People of all ages crowded the area. Several had very small (teacup size) dogs on leashes. Neither people nor dogs considered danger to the pets. I don’t know how people, who obviously were not watching their feet, managed not to step on them.
A children’s area contained a choo-choo circling on a track for pre-schoolers and a workshop area for older children. Outside that area, there was a huge Ferris wheel and a two-level carousel. The skating rink was crowded with everyone wearing red skates, obviously rented. I can’t imagine travelers carrying ice skates to this hot area, and certainly locals would not need them, so the ice would be manufactured.
There were many animated figures on top of the small, open-fronted buildings. One was particularly amusing. Two, a man and a woman, turned a ‘pig’ on a spit above the stall where pork was actually on a spit and being served.
A Punch and Judy show was beginning as we left. As I said, more carnival than the traditional Christmas markets.
Based on the appearance of permanency along this stretch of the dock, I believe the area may be in use year round if for no other reason than to watch yachts arrive and depart.
Traditional or not, Christmas markets are fun. I highly recommend them.