ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the Christmas markets of Germany, counted amonthe oldest in the world
Christmas is the most awaited season for millions around the globe but Germany turns into a winter wonderland with its ancient Advent traditions and Christmas Markets dating back to 1393. Each city and town reinterprets the traditional Advent Calendar, opening up surprises and treats each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with 3-D designs.
“Christmas markets are a lovely ancient tradition,” said our guide Jens Becker in Wernigerode, a quaint medieval town high up in the Harz region, 2½ hours from Hannover. With painted half-timbered houses and the spectacular 15th century RatHaus (Town Hall) in the cobbled Marktplaz, it’s at its loveliest in the festive weeks running up to Christmas with a 10m tall Christmas tree. One of the most spectacular Christmas Markets in the region, the Mayor cuts the gigantic stollen (cake) and declares the market open. Wernigerode is known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling).
Local craftsmen and artists set up stalls around the Townhall and Nicolaiplatz to showcase their splendid offerings in wood, glass, wool and ceramic, besides incense burners, nutcrackers, painted sun-catchers, knitwear, stone sculptures, nativity scenes, stars and bells in every shape and size. The stunning 12th Century castle forms the perfect backdrop to the weeklong Castle Wernigerode Winter Market. There’s fairy visits, Nikolaus distributing gifts in the inner courtyard, a children’s train and a special Christmas train that chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken.
“Dresden is a beautiful city famous for its 600-year-old Christmas markets,” Becker continued excitedly. “I was there for the 579th market. They make amazing pastries and pies like Dresdner handbrot and have bakeries where children make their own confections. They also have the best mulled wine.” Dresden has a dozen Christmas Markets, each with a different theme or tradition. Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is counted among the oldest in Germany. Its name derives from hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as “Dresden Christstollen” (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker.
The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a fairytale forest, a medieval market and the world’s largest freestanding Advent calendar. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market surrounding the Old City Hall in Cologne offers travellers a taste of hot gluhwein or traditional mulled wine and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near Cologne Cathedral. At the Elves Christmas market, zip around in the specially created ice-skating rink, enjoy German beer or bite into a hearty bratwurst (sausage). At Rudolfplatz, step into a magical world at the Fairytale Market.
Bustling Berlin turns into a dreamland, ushering in the festive spirit with its sixty odd Christmas markets, besides concerts, performances and shopping bonanzas. With the tunning Gendarmenmarkt Square amplifying the beauty of the WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus sees days and nights of endless merrymaking with food ranging from hearty meats to crepes, seafood and cinnamon rolls. Every Saturday Christmas-themed parades and circus performers enliven the main market during season.
Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt. Every day at 5.30 pm at Christkindlmarkt, traditional Christmas music from the balcony of the Town Hall greets revelers while in Frankfurt, trumpets blaring from the St Nicholas Church balcony herald the festivities. Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt is counted among the oldest and largest in Europe and each of the 300 decorated stalls vie for the coveted ‘most beautiful stall’ award. Another beautiful Christmas market is Heidelberg, an old city snuggled amidst hills and forests with a gorgeous view of the River Neckar from its castle.
Between the North Sea and the Harz mountains, experience a range of Christmas themes and settings. Emden has the only floating Christmas market in the freezing north while Wilhelmshaven turns into a romantic beach setting with splendid views of the winter sea. Osnabruck woos visitors to see its massive 6m high Nutcracker figure while the Oldenburg Lambertimarkt transforms into a gigantic Advent Calendar. In Stade near Hamburg, Santa’s helper Lucia, the Swedish Queen of Light wears a wreath of candles. In Bremen, Weinachtsmarkt whips up wonderful white mulled wine while newer Christmas markets showcase pirate ships, music concerts and niche artisan products by the River Weser with wellness and vegan fare at Findorffer’s Winterdorf.
Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt entertains over two million visitors in December alone. These Bavarian markets lined with neat stalls dressed with signature red-and-white awnings, sell handicrafts, candles, whiskered smoker dolls, handmade muppets and soft toys, music boxes and porcelain. Dig into delicious gingerbread, juicy Nuremberger sausages, iced lebkuchen and the yummy zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped treats made of plums.
On the streets, you cannot escape the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts. With carols in the air and shimmering streams of light raining down old timbered homes, with towns dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees gleaming like towers of light, elves and angels gracing the streets and shop windows, you almost see Nicholaus and his reindeer dancing through the skies to drop gifts down every chimney hole, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Germany’s Christmas markets.
Authors: This article appeared on 24 December 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.