During the festive season, the scent of roasted almonds and mulled wine fill the streets of German cities as shoppers in mittens and gloves pour over handmade ornaments and other goodies at Germany's Christmas markets.
A traditional Christmas shopping experience in Frankfurt
Christmas markets are a centuries-old tradition that connects the Advent season -- the four weeks before Christmas -- to the baser pleasures of shopping. And even though Christmas in Germany also means tinsel and lights and extended shopping hours, it is the markets that set the country off from its Christian neighbors.
A typical Christmas market consists of wooden stalls perched on a site in the center of the city, where people shove past each other to buy Christmas decorations and stop for a chat over a mug of mulled wine. A nativity scene is usually on display and often musicians, singers and dance clubs offer entertainment from a central stage.
Since the 15th century, merchants have traveled to Dresden to display their wares. To this day, from Nov. 24 until Dec. 24, shoppers flock to the market in the city center which also features a Christmas pyramid, woodcarvings and a stollen festival, where a nearly four-ton heavy version of the fruit-cake-like German Christmas specialty that Dresden is famous for will be dished up.
The Augsburg market lights up the night
Cologne has six Christmas markets, one of which is situated next to the city's gothic cathedral. The cathedral's towers, reaching some 150 meters (490-feet) into the 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 2 million people come to Cologne, according to Karl-Heinz Merfeld of the Cologne Tourism Association.
"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," he said.
In Augsburg's old market, once called the Lebkuchenmarkt after the gingerbread-like cookie called lebkuchen it sold, visitors still can find numerous varieties of the baked goods.
Centuries' old tradition
No trip to the Christmas market is complete without a bratwurst sausage or a cup of German mulled wine, which 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, Germany's most famous, 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.
Backer Thomas Schmidt with tons of the Christmas specialty, stollen, in Dresden
Still, 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.
Back to the past
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 or potato pancakes 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.
Since 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.
A selection of other Christmas markets around Germany:
* Dortmund (until Dec. 23) with 300 stands of art, decorations and toys
* Munich (Nov. 25 to Dec. 24) on Marienplatz
* Berlin (until Dec. 24) on Alexanderplatz
* Nuremberg (Nov. 25 to Dec. 24) Against the historical backdrop of the city's main market
* Rüdesheim (until Dec. 23) with 120 stands from 12 states in the romantic old town
* Bremen (Nov. 24 to Dec. 23) near the town hall
* Frankfurt (Nov. 23 to Dec. 22) in the central shopping district
* Leipzig (Nov. 24 to Dec. 22) Shopping and concerts in nearby churches
* Hamburg (until Dec. 23)
* Wiesbaden (until Dec. 23) a historical craft market
* Weimar (Nov. 25 to Dec. 22) the town hall becomes a giant Advent calendar