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Christmas markets

Max Zander
November 27, 2014

German Christmas markets have become an international hit in England, the United States and even in Japan. But nowhere is the choice of gingerbread, incense burners and mulled wine greater than in Germany.

The Christmas market at night with all the festive lights on at the Römerberg in Frankfurt
Image: Getty Images

Wooden huts and stands selling hot drinks, roasted almonds and Christmas decorations - these are prevalent in German city squares in the run-up to Christmas. Around 1,500 Christmas markets - both big and small - take place every year in Germany, with at least one in pretty much in every town.

Some of these have a tradition and history going back centuries. Others are newer, more modern versions whose bumper cars and beer stands seem more like a winter fairground. But whether modern or traditional, "the run on the Christmas markets remains unabated," said Hans-Peter Ahrens, chairman of the German federal association of market stall holders and traveling performers. The markets attracted some 85 million visitors last year, up considerable from the 50 million who visited markets in 2000.

The Christ Child and plaited cake

The traditional Christmas markets in particular continue to pull visitors from around the world into the historic city centers. The most famous of those is probably the "Christkindlesmarkt" in Nuremberg. The name derives from the Christkind - or Christ Child - who these days is picked every two years by the citizens of Nuremberg. Dressed as an angel, with a golden crown and wings, the child climbs on to the gallery of the Frauenkirche and festively opens the market by reciting the prologue of the Christ Child poem. At the 160 stands in the historic town center visitors can find everything from hand-crafted toys and gifts to regional specialties, such as "Zwetschgenmännla" - a figure intricately decorated with dried fruit. There are some 350 variations of this figure, from a chimney sweep all the way to a courting couple.

A woman dressed as an angel to represent the Christ Child at the Nuremberg Christmas market
The Christ Child opens the market in NurembergImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Daniel Karmann

The oldest Christmas market is, according to its organizers, is the "Striezelmarkt" in Dresden - which will be taking place for the 580th time this year. Towering at its center is the 14-meter Christmas pyramid - a carousel based on a Christmas decoration that has its roots in the Erzgebirge mountain range of central Germany. Traditionally, as part of the Dresden Stollen festival, the biggest Christstollen fruitcake is baked. A horse-drawn carriage takes the cake, which weighs between three and four tons, in a parade through the streets of Dresden's baroque old town center to the Christmas market, where it is ceremoniously cut into pieces and distributed among the crowd, for a small sum which goes to charity.

From Rothenburg to Quedlinburg

Apart from the world famous Christmas markets there are lots of smaller ones, where one can enjoy a festive atmosphere and mug of mulled wine. Like on the popular Romantic Road, the small Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Its medieval old town center, known globally as a setting for many films such as "Chitty Chitty Bang Ban," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" to name but a few, make it is a tourist magnet all year round, which has proven to be particularly popular with visitors from Asia. This year, the "Reiterlesmarkt" opens here on November 28. Lending its name to the market, the "Reiterle" is a mystical figure believed to be an envoy from another world that floated through the ether with the souls of the deceased at winter time. This figure is not there to scare anyone and is actually rather a benign mascot for the market.

Christmas market in the medieval town of Rotheburg ob der Tauber
Medieval flair in Rothenburg ob der TauberImage: Willi Pfitzinger/Rothenburg Tourismus Service

In the UNESCO Heritage town of Quedlinburg, the approximately 2,000 timber-framed houses provide a picturesque setting for the city's Christmas market. It is located on the splendidly decorated market place in the historic town center. A highlight here is the largest Advent calendar in Germany. Every day from December 1st until the 24th, the door of one of two dozen houses with Christmas decorations around the castle-hill is opened. Whatever fairy tales and sweet surprises are waiting behind each door, the children discover one day at a time and then only once the door is opened.

Frivolous or reflective

Mulled wine enthusiasts in big cities get to chose from a variety of Christmas markets. In Hamburg the historical Christmas market in front of the town hall is known for its art handicraft and unusual gift ideas. Three times a day you can also admire Santa as he flies over the market in his sleigh. Things are a little bawdier in the red light Reeperbahn neighborhood. At the Santa Pauli Christmas market, angels wait to reveal all to paying customers in the striptease tent and the porn karaoke is happy to have visitors groan and moan to their heart's content.

Santa's sleigh some 40 meters above the Christmas market in Hamburg
Hamburg's sleigh flies 40 meters above the Christmas marketImage: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Perrey

In the western German city of Cologne there are seven Christmas markets. The biggest one, located next to Cologne Cathedral, with some 4 million visitors, boasts the highest attendance in all of Germany.

Berlin can not compete with attendance figures like that, but with 80 markets of all sizes the capital takes the lead in the overall number of Christmas markets. At these Christmas markets there is something for everyone. At the "Winter Dream" market on Alexanderplatz with its big dippers and shooting galleries fairground fans get their money's worth. The Gendarmenmarkt features lots of places to wine and dine as well as enjoy the stage show. Those hoping to escape the big city hustle and bustle make their way to the "Lucia Christmas market" which can be found in the courtyards of the Kulturbrauerei in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. A small village has been created on the compound of the 19th century industrial memorial site. Named after Lucia, the Nordic goddess of light, the market is dedicated to Scandinavian countries. "Winter, Christmas and nature are the things most commonly associated with Nordic and Scandinavian countries," said Simone Hoffman from the Lucia Christmas market.

The Lucia Christmas market in the compound of the Kulturbrauerei in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district
The light maidens, typical of the Swedish Lucia festivalImage: Jochen Loch

At any rate, there is plenty of entertainment to keep everyone busy until Christmas.