It's not a city normally associated with Yuletide cheer, but Berlin actually has more Christmas markets than anywhere else in Germany. Are any of them any good? Jefferson Chase went out for a wander.
Christmas is allowed to be a bit louder, brighter and more crowded than other times of the year. Anyone who disputes that statement has never found themselves on Berlin's Alexanderplatz during the first weekend of December. There in the former center of East Berlin revelers will find not one, but three Christmas markets of varying degrees of taste.
If you're looking to soak up a bit of the Yuletide cheer in the German capital, there pretty much no avoiding Alex.
I start my Saturday evening at the western end of the massive concrete city square, near the Neptune Fountain, where friends have assured me the festivities are "pretty pleasant." And, in fact, the fountain, the adjacent Ferris wheel and the small ice-skating rink are lit up in nice-looking colors. The stands where people in Santa hats are flogging trinkets and stuff to eat emphasize artisanship and regional specialties.
The only problem is: I can't get near them.
Under the mocking eyes of the Roman sea god, wave upon wave of people sweep me ever further east, where things aren't so, um, pleasant. In fact, they're pretty unpleasant: third-rate-amusement-park-meets-social-welfare-office-meets-monster-truck-fair-level unpleasant. Isn't Germany supposed to be famous for its Christmas traditions?
I don't rule out an evening of trashy holiday foolishness on general principal, but tonight I'm just not in the mood. I'm looking for something special - or, if not special, at least different from this. Berlin is hardly known as Germany's Christmas capital, but with 70 Christmas markets, it's got more than any other city in the country.
It then occurs to me that I know just the right couple of ladies to help me get where I want to be. I take out my phone, dial the number of a friend and ask if can borrow her kids for a couple hours.
Moose dogs and pomegranate punch
Three subway stops north of Alexanderplatz, at the Lucia Christmas Market in the Prenzlauer Berg district, my companions, Lilly (6) and Philippa (4), take a spin on the chairoplane before heading over for a bit of bouncing on a trampoline equipped with bungee chords. In the background there sound some mournful, low-pitched moans. Moose calls, I speculate, although perhaps that thought only occurs to me because I'm munching on a sausage made from one of the big fellas.
It turns out the sounds are traditional Scandinavian Christmas music. The Lucia Market is dedicating to bringing Nordic Christmas flair to the German capital - Lucia is the Norse goddess of light. You're not going to find any currywurst (Berlin's number one local "delicacy") here. Instead, there are moose hot dogs, a crossbow shooting stand, fur-lined jackets to slip into, and for some reason a replica Central Asian yurt you can squat and warm yourself in.
That last bit isn't exactly Nordic, and I seriously doubt that Icelanders and Norwegians drink mulled pomegranate wine with a shot of absinthe as I'm doing right now. Still, Lucia is fun, especially if you've got kids in tow. The market takes place on the grounds of a restored 19th-century brewery, which provides an appropriately chilled-out atmosphere for a December evening, and the proceedings are just kitschy enough to recall childhood memories without making me want to vomit. There's only one thing missing - cool stuff to buy.
The true spirit of Christmas
Who's better: Jesus or Santa? Like the legendary first episode of the cartoon "South Park," Berlin answers that question decisively in favor of the latter. Berliners may sit around singing "Silent Night, Holy Night" on the evening of December 24, when Germans mark the Christmas holiday proper. But the run-up to that date is strictly shop-til-you-drop.
So the day after my excursion with the two girls, I'm off to the Trendmafia, a small market for local fashion and product designers located in the second story in one of those pre-fab communist buildings that look as though they would implode if the asbestos were ever removed.
On offer is a collection of amusingly purposeless household accessories and refreshingly non-pretentious clothing. There's nothing here that's ever going to take the catwalks of Paris by storm, but then again the dresses, t-shirts, etc. here can be worn in public without causing normally proportioned human beings to die of embarrassment.
I buy a combination scarf/hip-warmer for my better half from a Hungarian woman who recently moved to Berlin and is still trying to negotiate the trap doors of German grammar. She's one of hundreds of small-time designers hoping to earn a few holiday bucks and attract a bit of attention as people search for gifts.
There are several such markets in unusual locations around the city: "Holy S*@! Shopping" in a former postal train station and "Christmas Rodeo" in a disused swimming center to name just two.
Historic and handmade
Unlike Nuremberg with its famous Christkindlesmarkt, Berlin doesn't wear Christmas on its sleeve, but it does have some traditions - or at least re-enacted varieties of same. On second weekend in December, the Alt-Rixdorfer-Markt, which comes replete with a blacksmith and a living creche, is one of the family highlights of the season.
More typical of Berlin are markets that try to put a present-day spin on the past. I conclude my weekend tour with a glass of artisan-brewed beer at the Handmade Supermarket in a restored 19th-century covered market in the Kreuzberg district. It features a variety of products with little in common other than that they're not mass-produced.
Like everywhere else I've been in the past couple of days, the market is hopping, and yet somehow I feel really relaxed. Is it just the beer?
"No Christmas music," explains Helmut, a potter who's enjoying a short break. "That's the reason I always come here."
Indeed. As I discovered, Berlin has something to offer everyone at Christmastime, including - if you're into that sort of thing - a bit of peace and quiet.
It's an exceptional event: Glamorous stars meet challenging political filmmakers on the red carpet during Berlin's International Film Festival, the Berlinale. Get your facts straight here before it opens on February 11.