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Travel

A Really (Really, Really) Old Fashioned Christmas

Each year, tourists from around the globe flock to Germany's traditional Christmas markets. But a new kind of market lets visitors experience the holiday as it was celebrated hundreds of years ago.

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Get off your sackbut: Ancient instruments play a role in medieval Christmas markets

More and more, Germany's countless Christmas markets are coming to resemble temporary, winter-themed shopping malls. Stand after stand offers ornaments, children's toys, candles, clothes, and various other seasonal knick-knacks. A key aspect of the Weinachtsmarkt experience is drinking spiced mulled Glühwein and eating wurst and french fries while tinny Christmas carols pipe out of loudspeakers.

In recent years, though, some Christmas market organizers have begun offering an alternative. Sometimes called "medieval" and sometimes "historic," these themed Christmas markets aim to recreate Feudal market life in the Middle Ages.

Visitors enter a world as it existed before electricity, when the languages spoken were Middle-High German and Latin. Most often, the events are held in evocative, authentic-looking locations, such as the grounds of a castle or in an historic town square.

Living history

One of the most impressive of these is held at Burg Satzvey, a 12th century moated castle in the Eifel region, not far from Cologne. The castle regularly hosts medieval jousting tournaments and renaissance fairs, and, since the mid-1990s, a market with a Living Nativity (spoken in Latin and involving a large herd of sheep), over each of the four weekends leading up to Christmas.

Entering the market at Satzvey is a lot like going into a living history museum. The first thing you notice is the lack of electricity – no gaudy strings of bulbs, no fairground rides.

Burg Satzvey bei Nacht

Burg Satzvey at night.

Instead, the castle and booths are lit by flaming torches, and people stand sipping warm drinks ( Glühwein didn't exist yet – how about a nice flagon of mead?) around small open fires. You can forget about getting French fries for the kids, though they may enjoy chunks of roasted meat on pita-like bread from a wood oven.

The only music to be heard is live: small groups of minstrels and musicians stroll about, playing ancient instruments (think sackbut and dulcimer). Instead of fairground rides, live performers do tumbling, fire eating and juggling acts among the crowds.

Talking the talk

The entertainers and stall vendors alike are dressed in medieval garb, and will often pepper their German with either Latin or Middle-High German – demanding payment in long-extinct taler or silberlinge instead of euros (which are, nonetheless, the true coin of the realm.)

The wares that they are selling, too, differ from the traditional Weinachtsmarkt fare of glittering ornaments and carved nutcrackers. Everything for sale must be hand crafted and historically appropriate, with wooden toys, baskets, musical instruments, period clothing and handmade jewelry especially heavily represented. (If you want to buy a Celtic drinking horn or a starter crossbow set for your child, you could do worse than to visit a medieval Christmas market.)

No one can say for sure how many medieval and historic Christmas markets take place in Germany – the markets are run by a varied group of hobbyists and event organizers. But the number has been steadily growing since they first appeared in the early 1990s, says Ludwig Fischer, editor in chief of Pax-et-Gaudium, a magazine for Middle Ages hobbyists and professionals.

A hidden hotplate

Because there is no official oversight, Fischer explains, some markets are more historically correct than others. Many of them are simply "a mixture of romanticism and the Middle Ages," he says. Some use the term "historic" instead of medieval, giving them more leeway when it comes to historic accuracy. In those cases, for example, it could be OK to use an electric hotplate to keep food warm as long as it stays well hidden. Or, vendors may appear to be wearing period garments, but underneath the sheepskin throw is a layer of modern clothes in high-tech, insulating fibers.

Burg Satzvey also bills its market as "historic," thus allowing the presence of a beautiful – but electrically powered -- carousel from the last century. The organizers of two other major medieval Christmas markets, in Siegburg (near Bonn) and Cologne, take the historic aspect more seriously.

Christian and pagan

Kramer Zunft & Kurzweyl is one of the oldest organizers of medieval events in Germany; their market in Siegburg, which runs for the three full weeks leading up to Christmas, is the oldest and one of the largest, with 45 stands. It concentrates on the Christian aspects of the holiday, with nightly torch-lit carol singing and a nativity play on weekends. During the week, school groups visit the various craftspeople to learn about such disappearing arts as blacksmithing and calligraphy.

A smaller market Cologne, in the shadow of a small castle housing the Chcolate Museum, focuses on the pagan Christmas rituals, which, according to Hella von Beckerath of Kramer Zunft, existed alongside the Christian rituals in the Middle Ages. The winter solstice is celebrated in a series of fire-lit short plays and ceremonies. The market stands are decorated with natural materials, such as pine cones, acorns and chestnuts.

Medieval Christmas markets are found all over Germany – nearly thirty were recently listed in Ludwig Fischer’s Pax-et-Gaudium. For his part, Fischer recommends the following five as being particularly worth a visit. They are:

1) Dresden. Historical Christmas market among the arched arcades of Dresden’s famous Stallhof building.

2) Esslingen. (near Stuttgart) The medieval market starts at the beautiful baroque Rathaus square, continuing under the half-timbered facades on the market square and through the narrow alleyways of the old town.

3) Burg Satzvey (Mechernich, near Cologne/Bonn) On four weekends leading up to Christmas, historic Christmas market and nativity scene with live animals.

4) Siegburg. On the main market square, Germany’s first medieval Christmas market, and one of the most genuine. With 45 stands.

5) Cologne. At the historic Chocolate Museum, on the banks of the Rhine. Small but impressive.

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