A History of European Christmas Markets

Traditionally European Christmas Markets start the Friday before the First Sunday in  Advent.  They feature handmade crafts that you buy from craftsman who often demonstrates their craft right at their stands.  In the past three years Europe has suffered “Advent Creep.”   Two years ago several Austrian markets opened the weekend before the first Sunday in Advent.  In Munich the markets were advertised to start on the Friday before Advent, but when I got there, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise,” two were already going strong.  I asked the man who sold me Chimney Cake (“New this year, from Transylvania”) why they are open when all the on-line publicity said they would not be open for a week.  He said: “Well, The first Sunday in Advent is usually the last Sunday in November.  This year it is the first Sunday in December and ve must decide if we want a short Christmas Market or a long one.  We decided long, ya?  Don’t believe what you see on Internet.”  In 2014 some markets in France, Belgium and the Netherlands opened as early as November 15.  I will be posting pictures from some of this year’s markets as we get closer to Christmas,  Please keep checking this site for more posts.  

When Suzi and I moved home from Belgrade in 2011 several friends asked if I would miss my gluhwein.  Gluhwein (glow wine), a mulled spiced red wine, is a staple of Europe’s Christmas/Advent Markets.  My Serbian friends know how much I love Christmas Markets.  Every year Suzi and I popped up to Budapest for the opening of their market and then on the way home from Belgrade for Christmas we would stop over at some other Western or Central European market (taking advantage of the fact that there are no direct flights from Belgrade to North America.)  After leaving Belgrade I worked in Tbilisi, usually ending a visit the week of Thanksgiving giving me the chance to call on a European Christmas Market on the way home as I transferred planes somewhere in Europe.  I have the mugs to prove it.  Europeans collect Christmas market mugs the way NPR members collect coffee mugs.  When you buy a mug it comes full of gluhwein, hot and friendly on a chilly evening.  Each market has its own mug.

Medieval Central European cities held four annual markets in their main square.  Four times a year people not only brought foods to markets (as they did every week) but came in to sell goods they had made; furniture, toys, baskets, and, in the December markets, preserves and wine.  The December markets became identified with Advent and known as Advent markets (or Nicholas markets, because people gave gifts on St. Nicholas day.)  The one in Salzburg was the Knick Knack Market because it sold toys and ornaments.  Martin Luther didn’t like the idea of Nicholas bringing gifts to kids; he thought it should be the Christ Child, and that gifts should come on Christmas not St. Nicholas day.  In Lutheran areas of Germany the markets were renamed Chriskindel or “Christ Child” markets.  That name spread, but it was only after the end of World War II that markets in Catholic cities like Salzburg changed from being Advent markets.

These markets are spreading outward from Central Europe.  The first markets in the UK showed up in the 1980s.  Now there are several markets in London, including a big one in Hyde Park.  Belgrade has a fledgling holiday market, because it is on the Julian Calendar it brands it’s market as a New Year’s market.  Suzi even ran into one market in the European community living in Cairo, Egypt.  Markets engage all the senses.  Food is delicious; the smells of cooking and spices fill the markets.  Musical groups perform on stages around the squares.  Touch is the feel of a warm mug in your hand, the cold nip on your nose or the texture of a fabric or a trinket you are looking to buy.  December markets have featured lights from pagan days with bon fires, burning faggots, and candles to drive away the December dark.  Now Christmas lights twinkle against a backdrop of floodlit town squares or projectors flash moving images on town square facades.

There are several traditional symbols at Chriskindel markets.  Almost all have manger scenes, Christmas trees, Advent wreathes, Advent calendars with a new door open each day and, in Germany, many have Christmas pyramids, structures with a food stall at the bottom frying up bratwurst or potato pancakes and propeller on top that helps turn the middle levels of the pyramid, which have the manger scene, three kings, shepherds and angels. (Hot air rising from kerosene lamps designed to look like candles or cooking fires from the brats and pancakes drive the propellers that turn the pyramid, like miniature versions of Christmas Pyramids found in homes turned by heat rising from candles.  Modern pyramids have electric motors.)

In November 2012 I stopped over in Munich on my way home from Tbilisi, Georgia.  In Germany most Advent/Christmas markets open the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent.  Austrian markets open earlier.  Last year the German market opening day was scheduled for Nov 30.  Since I thought I would miss the Munich market I planned to catch a fast train (“Rail Jet” at 200 KM per hour, about 125 MPH) for Salzburg and its three markets.  I did that but Surprise, Surprise, Surprise: Two of Munich’s Christmas markets were in full swing while I was there.

A third Munich Christmas Market, the “Pink Christmas Market,” had not yet opened.  It is a market mounted by the Gay and Lesbian community.  I asked someone what that market was like: “You know, like Halloween only it’s Christmas.”

The official choirs, bell ringers, angels’ pageants and the like and all don’t start until “opening weekend” but there was a Piano Quintet busking (with an actual Grand Piano outside), and a brass band playing carols (after members drank their gluhwein and had their pics taken with Santa.)  There was also an organ grinder who was not grinding.  It was an elaborate rig with a mechanical monkey and a snare drum but he had the “hood up.”  Inside I saw a keypad and LCD display.  It was computer driven and the computer was on the fritz.

In Munich I bought a stocking for Liam that says, “Lieber Nikolaus, ich bin besonders brav (Nachstes Jahr!)” Google translates it as; “Dear Nicholas, I have been particularly (and here Google translate gives me several options) good – behaved – obedient — upright.  (Next Year!)  Of course “next year” Liam is scheduled to be a terrible two, but we can hope.

I got to three of  Salzburg’s 5 markets, the Chriskindel Market in the main square, the Mirabellplatz Christmas market and the Schloss Hellbrunn Advent Market on the grounds of a palace where the Gazebo from the movie Sound of Music is located.  Each market has its own character, but I particularly liked the Hellbrunn market.  A forest of Christmas trees had been set up, decorated with big shiny red balls.  Red balls hung from the oak trees on the grounds as well.  There were pony rides for kids through a forest of Christmas trees.  There was the “Advent Kafe,” Kevin suggested in an email that it is would be the perfect place to go if you are expecting someone.  A woman in a Santa costume led a reindeer around the grounds.  She negotiated with someone to hold the reins while she slipped into the WC.  The place was full of kids, younger ones wanting one more pony ride, older texting away on their mobiles.

These markets are surprisingly non-commercial.  Many feature locally made crafts and locally produced foods rather than mass produced trinkets.  I did see one booth in Salzburg featuring “‘JB Stetson’ an American Original.”  A local craftsman made the Tyrolean looking feather ornaments and hatbands that you could buy to adorn your 37.8 liter (10 gallon) hat.  (Show me the hat that can really hold 10 gallons!)   With increasing numbers of American tourists (they keep the Danube cruise ships running through the market season) I hope the markets can retain their local crafts and food character, although some of the food is not so local.  I notice more Balkan food at these Central European markets than in the past.  I already mentioned Chimney Cake.  There were also kebabs and Bosnian sausage.

Senses sated, the lingering memory smells, tastes, sounds, sights and textures comforting me, I begin the 22 hour journey home to Sitka for Christmas.

To visit Christmas markets click here and choose the ones you want to visit.  You can see markets from Armenia to the UK, along the Danube, Germany, the Low Countries, even Cairo.

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