It’s the Christmas you crave, where Old World traditions hold sway over commercial hype. Beginning in late November and early December, cobblestone streets and town squares in historic cities all over Germany are transformed into storybook settings of holiday sights and sounds. Light snow falls upon grand, medieval churches; friends and neighbors gather to exchange warm wishes; shoppers look for handcrafted toys and decorations; young people enjoy tasty treats and wine. It’s the season of Germany’s Christmas markets.
The Christmas markets of Germany can be summed up as a yuletide celebration without the glitz. No plastic Santas. No artificial trees. Just several weeks when holiday shoppers search out traditional gifts and goodies in a setting of medieval cathedrals, civic halls, and grand palaces.
These scenes from a Dickens novel began as savvy marketing back in the 14th century. In the weeks before Christmas, craftsmen would set up booths outside churches and draw on the comings and goings of church patrons. As these impromptu gatherings grew, the Christmas markets developed into festive outdoor crafts fairs. The small, colorful wooden stalls from which merchants sell their wares look like little condos for elves. Decorations lean toward the tastefully traditional and subtle—wreaths, strings of white lights, huge evergreen trees adorned with ribbons.
For the traveler, these markets are an experience of Old World holiday tradition in a country that’s had a big hand in shaping it. (This is, after all, the birthplace of the Christmas tree). And the wares displayed by merchants reflect this tradition, too; from toy-soldier nutcrackers and music boxes to hand-carved Nativity scenes and glassware.
You might find two less familiar German holiday items: the smoker and pyramid. Smokers are used to burn incense and often take the shape of snowmen or the three wise men. Pyramids, varying in size and shape, are shelves of small figures and scenes connected by a main rod topped by a pinwheel. Heat from candles placed at the base causes the pinwheel, and consequently the shelves, to rotate.
Knowing how shopping can prey upon one’s appetite, food vendors fill the air with tantalizing smells. Passersby can find plenty to appease their taste buds—sausages, potato pancakes with apple sauce, gingerbread, roasted almonds.
To many Germans these markets are more than just shopping and eating; they are social outings. Paying little heed to the crisp winter air, families come in the evenings to enjoy music of the season and to let children catch a glimpse of Nikolaus, their equivalent of Santa. Office workers and students converse over cups of mulled wine tinged with cinnamon. When the snow or rain interrupts, everyone just huddles closer or seeks shelter under umbrellas and awnings.
If there are differences between these markets, it’s the characteristics reflected by each host city. Whether in Munich, Bremen, Hamburg, or Dresden, you’ll find an abundance of historic buildings, monuments, and museums within a short walk of each market. Here are a few suggestions:
Bonn (Nov. 25 to Dec. 23): The marketplace in Germany’s capital is dominated by the pinkish facade of the Altes Rathaus, the town hall built in 1737. This is also Beethoven’s hometown and you can visit his house.
Münster (Nov. 30 to Dec. 22): The market fills the streets of the Prinzipalmarkt, a shopping area known as Münster’s "living room." Nearby are the gothic spires of St. Lambert’s Church, the Cathedral of St. Paul, and the Hall of Peace, where in 1648 the end of the Thirty Years War was negotiated.
Trier (Nov. 28 to Dec. 23): Founded by the Romans in 16 B.C., it’s Germany’s oldest city, as well as the birthplace of Karl Marx. Stroll past remains of Rome’s glory, such as the imperial baths and the Porta Nigra, the large stone city gate dating from the 2nd century A.D.
Before you pack your mittens, check with the AAA Travel Agency  for special packages that include the Christmas markets. Lufthansa airlines offers nonstop flights to Frankfurt from San Francisco and Los Angeles.
German National Tourist Office  can provide information, including a list of Christmas markets throughout the country. Contact them at 122 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10168-0072; (212) 661-7200.
This article was first published in November 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.