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The Christmas markets of Europe

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Behind the famous Getreidestrasse in Salzburg scores of brightly lit, colourful stalls offer every kind of Christmas decoration and accessory. Locals and visitors alike are milling around these stalls, admiring the decorations, buying toys for their children and grandchildren, and generally enjoying the festive spirit. Other decorated stalls are catering to the hungry crowds with mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, gingerbread, pretzels and various kinds of sausage.

But this is only one of the many special Christmas markets that began in Germany over 500 years ago. Today, Christmas markets spread as far as Eastern Europe, England and Italy and even to the United States, and Korea. These festive pre-Christmas shopping occasions have become huge events. The one in Berlin attracts nearly 4 million visitors each year, and every season sees more and more towns adopt the Christmas-market concept as an annual event.


This is where it all began. The oldest document referring to a Christmas market was written in 1434 and mentions the Christmas market in Dresden. The purpose was to enable the townsfolk, who had very little opportunity to otherwise decorate their homes, to purchase Christmas candles, moulds for the decorations, as well as toys and sweets to give to children. Nuremberg, today one of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets, was not mentioned in literature until 1628, a period during which the Christmas market concept was spreading all along Germany’s Romantic Road, the main trade route across the country at the time.

Subsequently, many of the markets established their own specialties. Nuremberg and Aachen became famous for their gingerbread, with a priest in Nuremberg complaining, in 1616, that he had to cancel the Christmas Eve service because the congregation was still out shopping for gifts and decorations.

Freiburg’s Christmas market takes place outside the town hall in a city square full of Gothic buildings. Here you will find 90 stalls selling everything from roasted almonds and chestnuts to stocking-fillers, and from Christmas tree decorations to wooden toys and hand-blown glassware.
Many German cities have ‘exported’ the Christmas market concept to sister cities in other countries. Frankfurt has ‘lent’ its Christmas market to Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh. Nuremberg’s Christmas market has been replicated in Chicago, and each year the list gets bigger.


From the end of November to Christmas day, Austrian Christmas markets also attract visitors from all over the world. The Austrians follow the German pattern of offering stalls with Christmas handicrafts, and tree decorations, but pay special attention to edibles, from hot sausages to the traditional ‘gluhwein’ – the heated mulled wine that warms the body and the soul. The main Christmas venues in Vienna are at the town hall square (Rathausplatz), Spittelberg, and at the lovely Schoenbrunn Palace, formerly home to the Austrian royals. An added attraction is the regular festive concerts.

The Austrian Christmas market in Salzburg takes place in the old town square behind the Getreidestrasse, and is augmented by Adventsingen, vocal concerts that perfectly fit with Salzburg’s musical tradition.


The biggest Swiss Christmas market is in German-speaking Zurich, held in the underground mall at the railway station. Here it is known as the Christkindlimarkt and is a good starting place for your Christmas shopping. Also, worth a visit is the famous pedestrian Bahnhofstrasse that boasts almost 21,000 Christmas lights in its mile of shops, the Christmas spirit being enhanced by a special fairy-tale tram decorated with Saint Nicholas, the European Father Christmas.


Arguably the best Christmas market in France, and one of the largest, is in front of Strasbourg Cathedral, and operates from 29th November to December 24. This Alsace market is the oldest in France and sells all the traditional items and the local Alsatian Christmas biscuits. One of the other top French markets is at Lille, and all of these in France have a Gallic touch in the gifts and foods one can buy here.


Denmark’s big Christmas market is held in Copenhagen’s lovely Tivoli Gardens, this city’s famous recreational and amusement centre. From November 17 to December 23 these gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland. Sixty large stalls sell all kinds of decorations, foods, gifts, and other Santa-related items like candied apples, wooden Danish pixies and special Christmas editions of Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Christmas plates. 750,000 lights twinkle from decorated trees and lampposts, garlands are everywhere, the lake is transformed into an ice skating rink and alongside the Tivoli cafes, Father Christmas’ Cave is a huge attraction for children. Every visitor to Copenhagen, as well as virtually all the city’s inhabitants, heads for this Christmas market which has become a major Danish tradition.


Ten minutes from Maastricht you will find Valkenburg, a former village that has one of the most unusual European Christmas markets – because this one is underground. Under the city centre the market takes place in a web of candle-lit corridors in which stall-holders offer wares that are very similar to those in Germany.


Locals say that Liege has the best Christmas market in Belgium. Here 155 wooden stalls offer all the usual Christmas specialities. But these are augmented with very Belgian touches – oysters, chocolates, foie gras, and even Belgian beer specially brewed for Christmas.


This country is said to be the European home of Santa, so it’s not surprising to see him at Helsinki’s St Thomas bazaar. Between December 8 and 21, 127 stall-holders offer Finnish versions of the usual Christmas decorations, gifts and foodstuffs, which, here, include grilled sausage, fried herring, pastries, and the traditional hot, mulled wine.


Here is a Christmas market with a difference. Saint Nicholas, known as Klees’chen here, was, according to this legend going into a butcher shop where he found three children who had been killed and were about to be made into sausages. He grabbed them and brought them back to life in this story of rescue and happy ending. Ever since then Saint Nick has been visiting kids with presents like candy, nuts, socks and more recently toys and even computers. The Christmas market is found from December 5 to 24 in the Place d’Armes in Luxembourg City and runs to the usual decorations, food and gifts pattern. The local touches are pancakes, soups, mettwurst sausages, mulled wine, schnapps, all accompanied by local bands, choirs and other festivities.


The original Italian Christmas market tradition is in the Alpine regions that were, before WWI, part of Austria. Bolzano, Bressano and Merano, have merchandise that is almost identical to an Austrian Christmas market to this day. More recently the concept has spread to Verona, Milan, Naples, and even Capri and Palermo, but one suspects that the motives are more commercial here, the items offered here leaning heavily towards antiques and general Christmas shopping.


The Christmas markets concept started in Britain around 20 years ago and began as a commercial proposition in Lincoln. But by now it has grown to 200 stalls located around the town’s floodlit cathedral, with traders getting into Victorian costumes. Local choirs sing carols, decorations are bright and attractive, and this event, starting on December 7 to December 10 draws visitors from all over Britain.

Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe the Christmas markets take on their own ‘flavour’, but are restricted to areas that are mainly Catholic, as the Russian Orthodox Church has no Christmas market tradition.


The Christmas market in Budapest takes place between December 1 and 24, and here, in the famous Vorosmarty Square you will find stalls with arts, crafts, Christmas decorations, local wine, and a special apricot brandy that Hungarians love to drink at Christmas. Another area that offers stalls of gifts, hot-spicy sausages and Christmas cakes is Budapest’s main shopping street, Vaci Utca.

Czech Republic

The best Christmas markets are, understandably, in Prague. The biggest is in Wenceslas Square in the Old Town Square, with others in Namesti Republiky and Havelske Trziste. All open on November 25, but here they operate until January 6. Items on sale are in the general Christmas Market tradition, and the best ‘buys’ are the famous Czech glass Christmas ornaments and puppets. When you are looking for nibbles, go for the famous Czech sausages, washed down with ‘svarene vino’ (hot wine).

Baltic States

The post-communist Christmas markets in Riga, Latvia, are fairly new, though folklore has it that the first decorated Christmas tree appeared here in 1510. Martin Luther, the story goes, was walking through a moonlit pine forest just before Christmas and thought he would replicate the moonlight with candles. The first post-communist Christmas market did not restart until 2001, and is now held in Dome Square from December 1 to 31. Traditional Christmas goodies and local foods are sold here. Tallinn, Estonia, holds its Christmas market from November 30 to January 4 in the Town Hall Square and Vilnius, Lithuania, has its market operating from December 1 to 26 at the Lithuanian Exhibition Centre.

If you’re planning a trip to Europe around year’s end, a visit to the Christmas markets will add a fascinating extra dimension to your holiday.

Walter Glaser is a practising psychotherapist counsellor and hypnotherapist working in Melbourne, Australia.

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