On a dreary Friday before the four-week Advent season begins, while dusk shifts to darkness, I seek the spirit of Christmas. She arrives at precisely 5:30 p.m. outside a lofty balcony at the Church of Our Lady.
I am but a speck in the crowd of thousands who fill the Hauptmarkt of Old Town in Nuremberg for this grand opening of the Christmas market, an annual tradition that dates back to at least 1628.
The throng waits outdoors one hour or longer, to stake out a good view. Eyes water while singing “Stille Nacht” – “Silent Night,” led by a chorus of children. Then comes the arrival of the Christkind, a teenage princess dressed in gold, similar to the foil angels that top holiday trees, brighten restaurants and hover above streets here and elsewhere in Germany.
The Christkind’s balcony speech begins the same every year, and this is the English translation:
“You men and women, you who once were children, too,
“You little ones whose life has just begun,
“Each of you who rests today, and will work again tomorrow:
“Listen, hear what Christkind has to say.”
Every day, until Christmas arrives, friends make their way to this town square to sip mulled wine, devour steaming sausages, chat and watch the unfolding of another holiday season. Tourists and others buy fruitcakes, heart-shaped gingerbread on ribbon necklaces and Deutschland’s finest handicrafts from vendors at work under striped awnings.
The shopping bears no resemblance to the barrage of Black Friday discounts in the U.S. (although a once-a-year Saturday spree in downtown Bayreuth, 50 miles northeast, keeps shops open until midnight).
It is not unusual for a single ornament of metal, wood or porcelain to command 25 Euro ($40) or more inside the 180 stalls at Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg. Product authenticity is a priority; more than 300 vendors apply for a space here.
Dresden’s counterpart is the Striezelmarkt, which began in 1434 and bills itself as the country’s oldest Christmas market. Throughout Germany – along sidewalks and in parks, public gardens, parking lots, castle courtyards and public squares of communities large and small – are temporary, outdoor markets that are similar in spirit and tradition.
Large cities are home to several Christkindlmarkts. Even the Munich airport operates one, with an ice rink surrounded by dozens of vendors.
What do these markets have in common? An enormous holiday tree, decked simply with white lights, tends to be the anchor. Angels on stilts and walking stars show up at Bayreuth’s Christmas market, whose booths line much of the city’s pedestrian zone.
More important than a decorated tree in the Erzgebirge Mountain villages, near the Czech Republic border, is a large and revolving wooden pyramid that carries candles or folk art characters made in the area. Residents in Annaberg-Buchholz open their market by circling the structure and drinking their first glass of mulled wine; electronic timers are set to simultaneously turn on candle arches inside each window of a home.
Throughout Germany, sausages served in buns are typical, as is the hot, spiced wine served in glass or ceramic mugs (with a refundable deposit, if the cup is returned). Type of sausage, length and number per order will depend on local specialties. Mulled wine and punch recipes vary, as do regional twists on sweet traditional treats.
In Frankfurt’s Weihnachtsmarkt, Monica Eiserloh of Susse Mandelbar sells coated almonds in 50 flavors. Last year’s liverwurst version was the biggest talker and an acquired taste.
Marzipan takes many forms, and Frankfurt is proud of its holiday Brenten, marzipan squares molded with old-time woodblocks that are increasingly difficult for average bakers to find.
In Nuremberg, a separate Christmas market for children contains activity centers, a carousel, toy scenes atop booth awnings and child-high shopping tables. A third market, for Nuremberg’s 20-plus sister cities to sell handicrafts, includes a booth for Atlanta, whose wares unfortunately were heavy with items made in China.
That’s sometimes the case in Christmas markets elsewhere, too: Cheap knockoffs mimic crafts that are painstakingly difficult to make. Some communities allow vendors to sell mass-produced clothing and household goods, in addition to handicrafts.
So pay attention to labels, or the lack of them. True craftsmen will proudly display or offer documentation of authenticity.
What else distinguishes one Christmas market from another? Ask the locals. Differences might be too subtle for the average traveler to distinguish.
In Nuremberg, an unusual specialty is comical figures made with prunes and walnut shells, which sell for as little as 4 Euro (about $5.50). They are, by far, the most affordable souvenir of the Christkindlesmarkt.
I remark to a local woman – who seems sensible because she wears a thick hat with earflaps on this damp, near-winter night – that most other handcrafted items seem too expensive for the average shopper.
“So you get one per year,” she says, with a shrug, “and, with patience, you grow a collection over a lifetime.”
One of the Midwest’s most authentic Christkindlmarkts is set up outdoors at Daley Plaza, Chicago, and is open daily through Dec. 24. It began in 1996, is patterned after the Nuremberg market and has at least 50 vendors of traditional German handicrafts and food. christkindlmarket.com, 312-494-2175
For more about travel in Germany: germany.travel, 773-539-6303