A horse-drawn carriage ride through the Tyrolean Alps is a popular side trip to Innsbruck’s Christmas market. Photograph courtesy of Insight Vacations
Travel Destinations

Christkindlmarkts 101: A guide to Europe's enchanting Christmas markets

Christmas markets have been staged annually across Europe since the Middle Ages, but few celebrate the medieval tradition as fervently as the German-speaking people. 
David Celdran | Dec 12 2018

David Celdran followed the sound of carols and the smell of grilled sausages across Germany and Austria and put together a list of the most festive Christkindlmarkts on both sides of the Alps. In this first part of a series, he tells us about Germany, Mainz.

 

It’s a mystery that never fails to escape travelers visiting Europe during the holidays: how can a continent known for having the most agnostics simultaneously host the longest and most lively Christmas markets in the world? Europeans may be the most fiercely liberal people, and church attendance across the continent is consistently in decline, and yet every year, citizens young and old, Christian and atheist, pour into town and village squares all over Europe to celebrate one of Christianity’s most important holidays. Nowhere else are these Christmas markets more religiously organized and passionately followed than in the German-speaking parts of the continent, cities that were once part of the medieval entity known as the Holy Roman Empire.

The Germans call their time-honored tradition Christkindlmarkt, literally meaning the “Christ child market.” Whether locals believe the biblical story of nativity or not, the most anticipated moment of each year’s market is pregnant with religious symbolism: the welcoming of the Christkind or the infant Jesus in the form of an elaborately staged nativity scene is particularly moving for many, devout or otherwise. But, this being Germany, most come for the earthly pleasure of grilled bratwurst sausage paired with piping hot glüwein, a spice mulled wine that’s served exclusively during the winter holidays.

Insight Vacations offers intimate guided tours of traditional markets in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Insight Vacations.

Unlike Christmas-themed markets that appear in other parts of Europe in December, the German Christkindlmarkt is a month-long event that starts on the first Sunday of Advent and culminates on Christmas day (even way beyond for some towns). German markets are also unique in their size and location with entire town squares closed off to traffic and dedicated to the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of stalls selling traditional Christmas toys, delicacies, and ornaments. The scenes from these markets seem straight out of antique Christmas cards: choirs singing carols on church steps, giant pine trees decked with boughs of holly, children on carousels, and, as if on cue, the obligatory snowfall that blankets the town square and its medieval rooftops in white.

Wooden toys and marionettes crafted by hand.

Christmas traditions are rigorously observed, and only goods made locally are allowed in the market. While you’re more likely to come across plastic toys or tree ornaments manufactured in China in Christmas markets elsewhere, the stalls in Christkindlmarkts will only sell products made by local and neighboring artisans. Few items are mass produced and the majority of gifts for sale are handcrafted. 

Seasonal and regional food specialties are another main attraction of German outdoor markets. Apart from queueing for local favorites like grilled sausages, stöllen, and gingerbread, another popular custom is drinking a cinnamon and clove-spiced mulled red wine called glüwein with a shot of brandy added. It takes some getting used to, but it’s one of the most effective ways to stave off the freezing winds that blow from the Alps in winter.

According to historical accounts, the Germans were the first to establish Christmas markets in the twelfth century and, judging by the massive crowds that faithfully return each year, they’re also most likely to be the very same ones who will keep this festive European tradition alive for a long time to come.

Traditional German architecture preserved in Mainz’s Old Town.

GERMANY, MAINZ

The capital of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate is best known as the home of the modern printing press. In the sixteenth century, Gutenberg used his invention to print the first books using movable type, a press that would revolutionize communications and spark social upheavals all over Europe. Today, the modern museum named after the famous German is one of the only reasons tourists outside Germany come to visit the medieval city along the Rhine; its one other main attraction is the annual Mainz Christkindlmarkt.

The Gutenberg Museum, where the first movable type press is housed.

The market occupies the entire central market square of the city and, closer to Christmas, spills over into the smaller streets that radiate from it. You’ll find many of the same traditional items sold in similar markets across Germany, but a particular specialty of the region is hand-carved and individually painted toys and ornaments. Woodcarving is a traditional skill for which the city is known. One of Mainz’s best-loved Christmas customs is to take young children to St. Gotthard’s Chapel next to the Mainz Cathedral to see the life-sized nativity scene carved from lime wood.

The life-sized nativity scene outside St. Gotthard’s Chapel.

Another specialty uncommon in markets around Germany is the Christmas-themed beeswax candles and other waxworks crafted by local artisans. The nativity scene in wax is particularly popular with collectors and the attention to detail in these pieces is astonishing.

The main square is closed to traffic to make way for the month-long Christkindlmarkt.
Beeswax candles are a Mainz specialty.

Twilight is especially picturesque when the Christmas lights draped above the market square cover the night sky like stars. And when the temperature drops below zero, nothing quite makes you feel as Christmassy as a piping hot mug of local glüwein and a slice of freshly baked gingerbread.

 

Photographs by David Celdran, with additional images by Insight Vacations. 

More Christmas markets in Europe tomorrow on ANCX.ph. This story first appeared in Vault 2013.