Advent in Germany is the time for the Christmas Markets. The old-fashioned wooden kiosks have been painstakingly assembled and filled with gingerbread hearts, woolen caps, Italian cakes, and hand-blown glass ornaments. Vendors will work in the cold for weeks.
Christmas markets become the focus of civic life across Europe during Advent. But no one does it better than the Germans. Known also as Christkindlmarkt, the German tradition stretches back to the Dresden Christmas market, 580 years old this year. You read that right. Five hundred and eighty years! Yet even older forerunners are documented, including one in Vienna as early as the 1290s. So the basic elements of this tradition have strong roots.
Weihnachtsmarkt in Halle – baerchen57 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The central squares of most good-sized German towns are filled with rustic kiosks and decorated with evergreens. The façades of the surrounding buildings are outlined with white lights. The air thickens with the aroma of cinnamon, chocolate, powdered sugar, and mulled wine. And anchoring it all is a huge Christmas Tree, set right in the center.
To me, the most striking thing about the Weihnachtsmarkt is the daily lure it has for the regular townspeople. Yes, tourists do make up part of the crowd. In fact a few years ago, the Christmas Market in “our” small city of Weimar (our second home) was named by CNN as the world’s best. This accolade surprised everyone and absolutely resulted in more tourist visits, but fortunately Weimar has not been overrun.
But it’s the townspeople who fuel Christmas Markets. Friends and family trek regularly down to participate. Toddlers enjoy the kiddie rides and miniature Ferris Wheels. Children gravitate to the petting zoos placed around the life-sized Nativity Scenes. Moms and daughters browse the hand-blown glass ornaments and rows of candles. Ah, the candles, from stout ones for table tops to small tapers whose flames power the blades of the Adventspyramiden (multi-tiered wooden pyramids).
And everyone eats and drinks! Steaming bowls of soup and plates of dried butter fish, slabs of bread layered with garlic and cheese direct out of wood-burning ovens, lollipop-like sticks of fruit dipped in chocolate, and, of course, Gluhwein, mulled wine (which, I think, must be an acquired taste!).
This year, unfortunately, we will not be in Weimar for Christmas. My husband spent an extended time there in the autumn while I led tour groups through Eastern Europe. Right now we need some quality time in Texas with family and friends. So I will miss my spiced lentil soup and pakora from the Indian kiosk—a new addition to the line of Weimar’s traditional vendors. But we have seen the Christmas Market enough times to know the rhythm.
A few days before Christmas, when our U.S. culture is gearing up to its most hysterical nearly-Christmas frenzy, the Weihnachtsmarkt closes. Done. Yes, the kiosks are shuttered, the goods are packed up, workmen dissemble the huts, and the shopkeepers go home so they can prepare to celebrate Christmas with their families.
Unimaginable, isn’t it? But, as one shopkeeper said to me, “Why would any want to ruin Christmas by shopping right up to the last minute?”
It’s a good lesson for Advent, isn’t it? A last-minute buying frenzy just isn’t the goal of the Weihnachtsmarkt. Instead, it prepares the season, keeping the focus on tradition and interaction with loved ones. Meanwhile, I do wish I had one of those gingerbread hearts or some marzipan potatoes.