Holiday markets in Germany are more than simply “markets” in an economic sense. More importantly they play a much broader role in the social life of people who live in the communities where they are held. Not only do they provide unique and beautiful settings in the cold winters with dark afternoons, but they are places where people can bring their families, meet their friends, eat and (of course) shop.
In these settings a variety of seasonal “rituals” also take place: the lighting of the holiday tree; music and dancing, often performed by people in traditional dress; consumption of local food and drink like sausages and Glühwein (hot spiced red wine). People go to the markets (and adjacent shops) to pick up special local holiday foods like fresh truffles, oysters, carp, and duck.
Amenities such as ice skating rinks, carousels, temporary cafes, sitting areas and games and a variety of events and performances held over the course of a month or more are an important part of the markets. And iconic elements such as large-scale and lighted ornaments, pinwheels, and decorated trees create landmarks where people can meet, adding depth to the market experience and identity. These markets are the original “pop-up” destinations that have become so popular in many US cities today.
Sixty cities in Germany have Christmas Markets. While the first Christmas Markets lasted only a couple of days, today’s markets usually start the last week of November and extend until a day or two before Christmas, and are open every day from morning until evening –usually until 9:00 pm. To be open this many hours and days, there needs to be a lot to do and there generally is. There are activities and destinations that appeal to people of all ages. People bring their children and grandchildren to share the experience with them.
Skating rinks usually start later (in December) and last longer (into January) and include not just the rink but a warming area, skate rental or change room, a café, bar, stage, sound system and deck overlooking the rink. All of the structures are “pop-up,” of course, even the wooden log houses set up each season at some markets.
Most markets tend to specialize in local delicacies and traditional products, in part because in the past, only local tradesmen were allowed to sell their wares at the city’s markets, which led to the distinctive regional character of today’s markets. Markets are generally located in city squares, and are nearly always surrounded by retail uses and major destinations such as city government buildings or churches that help to create very active edges. Originally, the Christmas Markets were held around a city’s main church to attract church-goers, but in some cities they were so popular that a priest (in Nürnberg in 1616) complained that he could not hold the afternoon service on Christmas Eve because no one attended!
Most cities have multiple markets, some interconnected, and each with a slightly different focus: one might center on a skating rink and café; another on seasonal prepared foods; another on handmade crafts that can be purchased for Christmas gifts; children’s games and rides; concerts, performances, holiday ceremonies, and more. Because of the combination of a series of squares connected by a commercial street, it is possible to create a series of markets along one path connected by permanent retail shops and, in a sense, get much more “bang for the buck.”
The Christmas Markets are often physically connected to regular daily or weekly food markets as well, broadening the experience even further. In Munich, for example, the six-day-a-week Victualmarket becomes an even more important destination during the holidays as the place to purchase special local and seasonal food items. These special holiday places are integrated into the life and culture of the city; they are how local customs are passed down through generations. They are, in short, much more than “just” markets.
I snapped all of the photos in this post on a recent trip to Germany. Below are descriptions of the markets that we visited in three different cities.
In 1642, the ”Nicholas Market” was held near the Church of our Lady (the Frauenkirche) and the main Christmas market is now held in the heart of the city on the Marienplatz. It specializes in traditional Bavarian crafts (e.g. wood carvings, gingerbread, candles, glassware, and chimney sweeps made of plums and almonds) and each day, a Christmas concert is held on the balcony of the Town Hall, located on the square. Inside the town hall, the “heavenly workshop” is held, where children between the ages of 6 and 12, with the assistance of professional artists and other instructors from the Children’s Museum, do arts and crafts projects, bake Christmas cookies, and dress in Angel costumes.
There are twenty Christmas Markets located throughout Munich specializing in various products or to attract different audiences (e.g. a specific product such as cribs, mangers and nativity scenes): a medieval market, a gay market, an international market which has tents for a mix of international music and theater performances, handicrafts and foods from all over the world, and a Christmas Market at the Munich International Airport that is an integral part of a new airport concept called “Airport City” that uses the market and a variety of other attractions throughout the year to attract tourists, travelers, and local people from the surrounding region and villages. (The market pictured above is the Victualmarket.)
Markets are located in six squares along the “Haupstrasse” (the main street), in the old city in Heidelberg. Each square specializes in a different type of market that includes gifts, an antique carousel, a Christmas Pyramid (pictured above) around which schools and associations present their work, a nativity scene and large scale toy train for children next to a railway which takes people a mountain to a castle where there is another market. One square (Karlsplatz) has a 4,305-square-foot ice skating rink that is open until 1:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve! The makets are one component of the larger Christmas Market program, which also includes theater and music performances, events for children and families, and concerts in churches adjacent to some of the squares.
Freiburg also has several interconnected markets located in four of the ten squares in its old city. The market has traditional crafts from the Black Forest region (e.g. straw shoes, colorful wooden toys and games, beeswax candles) and a variety of local foods. The daily market, located in the largest square, the Munsterplatz, has a variety of locally made products as well, like the brushes and brooms sold at the cart pictured here.