Bringing the magic of Christmas markets home

Bringing the magic of Christmas markets home

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

‘Twas the time before Christmas, and all through the land,

No one was quite sure of what they should plan.

Until the last moment, uncertainty raged,

Would winter’s best pastime, Christmas markets, be staged?

While the scourge of COVID-19 may well take away our chances to gather en masse in 2020, it cannot erase all the pieces of the puzzle that slot together to create that inimitable Christmas market magic. By breaking a market down to its essential elements and recreating a reasonable approximation of each, we can capture many of the aspects which have made these holiday meet-ups so popular over the past centuries.

The backdrop

The iconic buildings that form the backdrop to Europe’s greatest markets will be standing as tall and proud as ever, and will no doubt be donning their holiday garb in the form of twinkling lights, fragrant pine boughs, bulbs and baubles. Bundle up in your flashiest Christmas gear and snap pictures of friends and family in front of landmarks such as the Strasbourg Cathedral, the Marienplatz in Munich or the Old Town Square of Prague.

The gifts

The gifts and souvenirs picked up at the Christmas market range from cheap and mass-produced items to high-end, handcrafted wares. Pick up the little doo-dads and craft supplies to make your own cards and decorations at a discount shop. High-end food and drink from smoked sausages to honey can be found at the weekly farmer’s market, butcher’s shop or an organic supermarket. Seek out handicrafts at the smaller, high-end boutiques you’re apt to find on the cobbled streets of a city’s Old Town. Tourist information offices often sell a range of quality gifts specific to the city they’re promoting and are always ready with recommendations for shopping. For more eclectic gift-giving, a trip to a charity shop such as Oxfam or the Red Cross is in order.

As artisan’s markets typically attract much smaller crowds than the vast Christmas markets, look for many of these to go forward as usual. The Wiesbaden Town Hall and the Fruchthalle in Kaiserslautern are just two venues at which items such as leather goods, jewelry, felt toys, silk scarves and the like can be acquired, sometimes even from the hands of their own makers.

The tastes

Many of the foods we know and love from Christmas markets can be purchased at other points where people tend to gather. At train stations and the surrounding areas, there’s likely to be a vendor or two selling grilled meats and sausages, crepes or roasted and sugared almonds. Chocolate shops, bakeries and pop-up shops will be selling all the sweet treats and gingerbread needed to keep a sugar high going for days. Other market favorites including potato pancakes or flammkuchen can be purchased in ready-made form and heated up in the oven back home, where they won’t freeze before you’ve had a chance to scoff them down!

The drinks

Even in the absence of the Christmas market itself, it may be possible to find a stray Glühwein stand or two. For an amped-up mulled wine experience, check with your favorite winery to see if it plans to open its doors for a weekend or two in the run-up to Christmas: one steaming mug of Winzerglühwein and you may never want to go back to that mass-produced stuff from the carton again! Many breweries concoct a special Christmas brew with hints of dried fruits and spices, and those with restaurants attached will serve traditional Christmas fare with duck, goose or carp served with all the trimmings on the menu. Wineries and breweries are also great places to pick up bottles for gift-giving.

Skating rinks

A turn on the ice can be a fun part of any market visit. Look for some outdoor rinks to be up and running, albeit with limitations on the number of skaters on the rink at any given time. Rinks are oftentimes set up a bit removed from city centers, so if skating’s your thing, take the time to search one out.

Nativity scenes

In the absence of prettily decorated chalets, this year, venture inside churches and cathedrals to take in the amazing sight of hand-carved crèches depicting the birth of Jesus in the manger. Bamberg, for example, boasts of dozens of such scenes which can be discovered by means of a walk along its so-called Nativity Trail. The sumptuous interiors of these churches you might not otherwise have chosen to visit are sure to take your breath away!

Holiday-themed outings

There may be no market, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all other holiday fun is off the table. Amusement parks may be up and running, riverboats may be sailing the Rhine and Mosel, and steam trains might be chugging along scenic, snow-dappled valleys. Ethnographical and open-air museums often offer a weekend or two depicting Christmas celebrations of bygone eras.

Swap town for country

This year, in lieu of heading to a big city, make way instead to the glorious countryside. The Alps, Black Forest or Vosges mountain range to the west of France’s Alsace region are just a few places blessed with hills perfect for torch-lit hikes or horse-drawn carriage rides and idyllic villages straight out of a Christmas card.

The holiday season may look much different this year, but its message of hope, renewal and goodwill toward men is hardly diminished by the absence of markets and the social events we know and love. And when they’re back and the world is healthy once again, we’re sure to cherish them all the more.

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