The holiday season means more than gifts, music and trees in Germany. Many a reveller gets into the spirit at one of the country's omnipresent Christmas markets.
Wherever you turn in Germany, you'll find a Christmas market
Christmas time in Germany means decorated trees, gifts, strings of colored lights and supermarket loudspeakers blaring carols. That might not seem very different from Christmas time in the rest of Western hemisphere. But, it's the Christmas markets that stand out in Germany.
Mulled wine, music, and cold feet: you could say, that's what's special about Christmas markets in Germany. A typical Christmas market consists of small wooden stalls perched on a site in the center of the city, where people shove past each other to buy food, and sometimes to buy Christmas decorations, to stop and drink glühwein, German mulled wine. There's usually also a nativity scene on display, but with all the other distractions, it's easily overlooked.
Cologne has six Christmas markets, one of which is situated next to the city's cathedral. The cathedral’s towers, reaching some 150 meters into the clear winter sky, make the giant Christmas tree in the middle of the setting appear quite small.
In the four weeks of December during which the markets are open, around two million people come to Cologne, according to Karl-Heinz Merfeld of the Cologne Tourism Association.
"They aren't the top (Cologne tourist) attraction," Merfeld explained. "For that we have the 2006 soccer world cup, next year's World Youth Day and, of course, Cologne's Carnival. But the Christmas market industry is still important … and the tourists who come here are usually really excited -- above all the English and Dutch -- because they aren't familiar with these kinds of markets with the music and the lights."
Centuries' old tradition
Wooden signs above the stalls state what's on offer -- anything from silver jewelry and wooden toys to Christmas Stollen, a cake typical of the season. And it's a good thing that there are signs above the stalls -- with the hordes of people making their way past each other, it's hard to see what's on display. Little old ladies use walking sticks to make their way through the crowd; young mothers navigate prams with a grim determination through the narrow aisles; and families huddle together with a warm drink -- glühwein for the parents -- for a brief respite.
German mulled wine, glühwein, is spiced with cinnamon and cloves. It is said to have originated in India, where the drink was prepared with water, alcohol, sugar and spices. Apparently the British then brought the recipe to Europe in the 18th century. Folklore has it that at the Christmas market in Nuremberg someone first added red wine to the mixture and created what's now known as glühwein. These days, about every third stall sells the stuff.
Besides the obligatory sausage, Christmas market visitors can gorge on reibekuchen, potato pancakes served with apple sauce. Though nowadays tradition has made way for Chinese chop suey, Mexican burritos and other non-German specialties.
Christmas markets have come a long way since they were first introduced in Germany. Dresden is said to have had the first, in the 15th century, and Nuremberg followed suit in 1697. In 1820, the first Christmas market was held in Cologne and restricted to locals who could buy toys and food but no alcoholic beverages.
Escape the modern day hectic
Now Cologne holds a medieval Christmas market where the salespeople wear wool clothes and wooden shoes and pursue medieval chores like blacksmithing. The smell of burning wood wafts through the air, and candles illuminate the setting. Nothing as profane as reibekuchen is for sale; hungry visitors can snack on unleavened bread freshly baked in ovens heated with wood. Nor is glühwein available. Instead, thirsty souls drink mead.
Opening proclamation at Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt -- in existence since 1628
Though Christmas markets didn't exist during medieval times, one of the organizers drew a tenuous link to the markets held long ago. "The emphasis is on a market where there is peace and quiet as opposed to the other Christmas markets where the turbulences of every-day life are dominant," he said.
After all, Christmas markets aren't really about glühwein, reibekuchen or buying useless things -- they're about coming together in anticipation of the advent of Christmas, a season of peace and harmony.