As daylight fades and the glow of the gloaming settles in, the twinkling magic of the German Christkindlmarkt begins. The spirit of Christmas quickly becomes contagious during the winter months as towns open their traditional holiday markets. These quaint and historic shopping districts, barely touched by time, offer edibles, crafts, collectibles, and trinkets made with the care and skill of another era. Enter a time gone by, while strolling in the shadows of magnificent cathedrals and town halls, as the first winter snow gently falls.
Step back in history to a time when Christmas treats were made with care at home and the toys under the tree were crafted by hand. Friends gather in the warm light pooled around each stall, bundled tightly against the winter chill. They share good cheer and mugs of glühwein, a deliciously warm spiced wine that, although found in every market, differs slightly in each town. The main market of Hamburg was inspired by the Circus Roncalli. Here, festive red-and-white awnings top rough-hewn timber cottages clustered in front of the towering town hall, evoking a sweet sense of childlike wonder.
The striped stalls are chockablock with delicate handcrafted woodwork and treats of sugar-dusted stollen and crisp paper cones of warm candied nuts. Filled with quaint carousels and carefully crafted collectibles, it is no wonder the market’s theme is “Art Instead of Commerce.”
Deep in the center of this bustling, ever-popular market sits an art nouveau–style café filled, as is the market, with personal treasures from the collection of Bernhard Paul, founder and owner of Circus Roncalli. The patterns of nostalgia on the vintage toys and tins provide row upon row of visual delights. Silversmiths and potters stand inside the cozy cottages, peddling their wares. Carefully stacked into gleaming, cheery pyramids, oranges and tiny piles of perfect walnuts are reminders of old-fashioned stocking stuffers: simple and complete.
The aisles of the nearly hidden Käthe Wolfhart store weave through displays of tempting nutcrackers in a variety of traditional costumes—a mountain climber in kneesocks and woolen shorts stands at attention next to a fly fisherman, complete with a wooden rod and reel and a catch of trout at his side. Wander away from the main market to find dozens of other small squares filled with markets of their own, each charming and familiar in its sense and celebration of the season.
Fragrant evergreen trees, beribboned in red velvet bows, line the bridge to Nuremberg’s historic old quarter and the ancient market within. Inside this imposing fortress, holiday merriment flourishes in the Handwerkerhof. Hidden behind the half doors of Old-World stalls, this crafts market features picturesque paper goods and vintage-style tin toys awaiting a Christmas Eve fate. From fragrant cake pans studded with almonds to carefully painted cookie cutouts meant for decoration instead of degustation, the famed gingerbread of this quaint village enchants in its many guises.
The spirit of Christmas has many forms in this bustling town. A delicate gold crown nestles among the blond curls of the Christkindl, the Nuremberg Christmas Angel. This ethereal local beauty enchants children and adults alike with her presence as she solemnly presents a historic prologue christening the market opening in late November. The rows of candy-striped tents in the Hauptmarkt, the main market, hold riches unseen. With local artisans aplenty, a favorite gift is often the Nuremberg plum people—small figurines made of dried plums and dressed in authentic German costumes that fascinate and enthrall.
As the towering glockenspiel chimes the evening hour, crisp crackling sausages of all sorts scent the air of the Marienplatz, Munich’s central square. The festivity is infectious as holiday visitors and locals alike cozily crowd the maze of stalls. Hand-painted Christmas balls gently clink against one another, and carved wooden ornaments, clustered on their strings, tinkle together. Shoppers choose souvenirs to remember the magic and music of Munich.
A short stroll along a twinkle-light-filled passageway leads to the Kripperlmarkt, a market specializing in an astonishing array of everything needed to assemble a nativity display. Hands reach out to camels with exotic robes and fancy bejeweled Wisemen. Singing cherubs in every shape, size, and shade of glistening gold are irresistible to touch. The story is told far beyond the tiny figures of Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child.
The medieval market nearby offers entertaining minstrels and traditional German folk singers amid the inviting aromas of artisan bread baking and pastries concocted from centuries-old recipes.
The sights, smells, and sounds of the markets are an integral part of Christmas in Germany. Christkindlmarkt continues to enchant visitors year after year.
Photography Kate Sears
Text and Development Brittany Williams
Find the full story featuring more of Germany’s historic shopping districts in the November/December 2008 issue of Victoria magazine.