When I first heard about Europe’s Christmas markets from my German husband, who grew up visiting them, I was charmed by his vivid descriptions of the magical ambience, the convivial warmth in the atmosphere at these Christmas fairs, in spite of the finger-numbing cold, the mesmerizing fairy lights, the delicious foreign-sounding festive food and drink, and the traditional handcrafted Christmas ornaments that one could buy there.
After listening to him, I became so hung up on experiencing some form of it in Singapore that when Gardens by the Bay launched their first Christmas Market in 2015, I made sure we were one of the first to visit. Well, he dragged his heels, but I dragged him there anyway. I was, of course, disappointed. And he just barely resisted telling me he could have told me so.
The truth is, if you want to experience a bona fide Christmas market, there’s no other way than to travel to Europe, to the home of the original Christkindlmarkt, where the real McCoys are held 4 to 6 weeks before Christmas every year.
A Brief History
Christkindlmarkt, which, literally, means Baby Jesus Market, is a secular and commercial street market that kicks off the religious season of Advent, which starts about 4 weeks before Christmas Day. During Advent, Christians prepare for and anticipate the birth of Jesus Christ. The timing is ironic, I know, considering that preparation for the birth of Christ means living in deep prayer and contemplation, eating and drinking with sensible restraint, and performing both spiritual and corporal good works, certainly not indulging in eating, drinking and shopping at Christmas markets. But because winter days in Europe can be bleak, Christmas markets were first created to bring cheer to weary villagers, and to add colour and light to dreary winter days and nights.
Yes, you’re looking at Christkindlmarkt as the first commercialization of Christmas!
Although Christkindlmarkts originated in the German-speaking parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages, and in the eastern regions of France, Christmas markets are now held all over Europe, including the Czech Republic, Belgium and Sweden. This means a winter holiday in almost any part of Europe must include a visit to the Christmas markets.
However, every proud German will tell you that the best Christkindlmarkts are still found in Germany. That may be arguable, but the first Christmas markets did indeed come out of Germany: in Munich in 1310, in Bautzen, the hilltop town of Saxony, Germany, way back in 1384, Frankfurt in 1393, Dresden in 1434, and Augsburg in Bavaria in 1498. German tradition is so deeply rooted in Christmas markets that to date, there are some 150 in and around Germany. If you’re heading to Germany this year-end, research the best in Joy Anderson’s book, Ultimate Guide to the German Christmas Markets, Where to Go and What to Buy. If not, some sources say the best in Germany can be found in Nuremberg, Cologne, Dresden, Freiburg, Stuttgart and Speyer.
Eat, Drink, Shop
Traditionally held in the town square, an authentic European Christkindlmarkt tempts the merrymaker with a wide and sinful selection of sweet, savoury, hot and cold seasonal foods, drinks. It is also a one-stop shop for holiday ornaments and gifts, all of which are procured out of open-air stalls that look like wooden chalets. Visitors to an authentic Christkindlmarkt can also look forward to caroling and dancing. Selected Christmas markets may even have a Christmas pageant on opening nights.
Hearing my husband recount the snacks on sale makes me want to crack open a tin of caramelized pop corns and munch on sugared almonds every time. If you live to eat carbs, you’ll be in wonderland because big on the menu are German potato cakes, waffles, pancakes, crepes, candied apples, gingerbread marzipan, stolen, fruit cake and hot chocolate. Those on a low-carb Paleo diet can still indulge in bratwurst, currywurst, rotisserie pork and roasted chestnuts. For something to drink in the winter, you also can’t go wrong with warm mulled wine and hot apple cider vinegar.
Christmas markets truly have something for everyone, even non-foodies. If you visit early on in the season, it gives you a head start on stocking up on stocking stuffers, AKA gifts, as well as traditional handmade Christmas decorations like wooden toys, candles, Bohemian glass ornaments, hand-painted pressed-tin ornaments, ceramics, paper stars, Christmas-themed linen, pewter wares and probably the largest collection of Nativity scenes for your home.
Charming as they are, Christmas markets can be crowded and a feat to navigate as a result, and this can take the fun out of the festive mood. My very own Christkindlmarkt expert says the best time to visit is during the day. Most of them open from 11 am, so you have plenty of hours to pick from before evening and night come, which is when the crowds descend. In the light of day, it’s also easier to browse and shop.
What you need to do is grab yourself and nice warm drink – hot chocolate if you’re a teetotaler, mulled spice wine if you’re not and just stroll through. Christmas markets are well-known for serving their beverages in special collectible mugs, so hang on to yours.
Some people prefer to eat before they shop, so they have energy to shop. Some like to get the gift and ornaments buying out of the way before they replenish the calories. Either way, day-time, when the crowds are generally thinner, is when you can do both at a leisurely pace. If you like to keep things organic, that works too. Shop as you eat or eat as you shop. And not to be outdone by the visitors who come after sunset, after you’re done shopping, find a nice spot to take in the sunset and the change of mood at the market, stay for a bit of caroling and dancing, for it wouldn’t really be a festive market without the festivities.
HSD’s Must-Visit Christkindlmarkt List
Not in any order of merit, these are our picks of the best.
- There are many in Cologne, Germany, but the biggest and brightest is held beneath the flush of the city’s cathedral. Do also ride the Christmas Market Express Train that takes you through the city and lets you hop off at all the different markets.
- The market at Place Kleber in Strasbourg, France is particularly fairy-tale-like because of its magnificent Christmas tree. This Christmas market is also the first European Christkindlmarkt to emerge outside of Germany. Strasbourg is also affectionately known as the Capital of Christmas. Here is where both French and German yuletide traditions are adhered to, which makes their markets both interesting and exuberant indeed.
- Prague, Czech Republic’s Christmas markets at Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square are set amid baroque buildings and gothic churches. Every year, a tree from the forests of Central Bohemia is brought here, bedecked and made resplendent with magical lights and beautiful decorations.
- Now how about a Danish Christkindlmarkt at Tivoli Garden, Copenhagen? The Nordic yuletide mood is exuberant and the colours and lights will make you feel like a child in toy land.
- In Brussels, Belgium, Christmas markets are a bona fide winter wonderland and the giant Ferris wheel is a huge attraction too. The one that spans the Grand-Place in Brussels to around the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie, the Place Sainte-Catherine and the Marché aux Poissons is massive, with over 200 stalls to eat and shop through!
- Visit the Christmas market in Stockholm, Sweden if you’re a fan of the rustic theme. Old is definitely gold at Old Town, Skansen, Kungstradgàrden and Djurgàrden.
- One of the world’s oldest Christmas markets is in Dresden, Germany. If you like beautiful and traditional, head for this one located at Altmarkt Square, which is also called Striezelmarkt.
- They say the one at Nuremberg, Germany is not just the most famous in Germany and Europe, it is well-known for its grand and ancient atmosphere. The food is particularly spectacular too.
- If you’re looking for something large in scale and deeply authentic, Birmingham, UK’s Frankfurt Christmas Market is one of the world’s most well-known outside Germany.
- Love romance and history? Any one of the 20 Christmas markets you’ll find in Vienna, Austria will hit the spot. Vienna has a long history of Christkindlmarkts and you have to pick one, choose Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace.