‘Tis the season to be jolly y’all!! And as I’m somehow located in jolly old Germany for this year’s Christmas season, it’s the first time in my entire life that I’ve experienced a real life German Christmas market, and let me tell you this for free: they are kind of a big deal. The only thing I knew of these markets up until now, was that secondary schools in England often like to do a day trip to one of these market squares in order to allow the language students to really get a feel of German culture (although maybe that’s not such a normal thing any more, given that languages and art and all that malarkey aren’t really popular with the UK government these days?) But enough of that for the time being, as a month ago I arrived in the North of Germany and found myself thrown slap bang into a Winter Wonderland, the likes of which far outdoes any offering that the actual London Winter Wonderland could ever offer. Soz, London. Just being honest.
The official term: Weihnachtsmarkt (or in some areas, Christkindlmarkts)
I’m not gonna lie pals, the first time I heard this name I thought ‘aha! A wine night market!’
You know, where you drink wine at night time.
And although it’s true that it’s highly likely that you’ll drink some wine there (of the mulled variety), the word weihnachtsmarkt means exactly what it is- a Christmas market. This market tradition has been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years, having began at least some time in the 1300s, and originally took place nearby to large churches. Those market traders were not silly you see: lots of people go to church, therefore lots of people stop at the Weihnachtsmarkt en route. Or just skipped church altogether for a light spot of shopping instead, the crafty old souls.
To be completely honest with you,a Weihnachtsmarkt would not be a true Weihnachtsmarkt if there wasn’t glühwein involved. The smell of this spiced mulled warm wine should definitely hover over the market and potentially warm the cold air as well, creating a Christmassy feeling all around you which should obviously be embraced with open arms.
One thing which I really do appreciate about these places is the fact they’re quite ahead of the game in terms of the war on waste. Every market has its only specially designed mug which glühwein is served in…they charge you €1-3 extra when you order your first mug, which you can then refill for a slightly cheaper price and then either exchange your mug at the end for your €1-3 charge, or hang onto the mug and let them keep the money. I mean- what an absolutely BRILLIANT idea. Not only does this mean there are no wasteful paper cups being manufactured for glühwein purposes, but also litter is kept to a bare minimum.
I would say this is my favourite glühwein bar, as it’s decorated with the Three Wise Men.
Tuck into all the German treats
I. LOVE. FOOD. As well as the usual bratwurst, currywurst, and other forms of meat-based products, there are a whole load of other delicious wintery treats to be found at a Weihnachtsmarkt. Mushrooms with garlic sauce, crepes, and roasted chestnuts. Lebkuchen can be found at just about any event in the whole of Germany regardless of the season- these are giant gingerbread lovehearts, iced with ‘ich liebe dich’ and ‘Frohe weihnachten,’ amongst other phrases. One of my favourites is the Gebrannte Mandeln- sticky sugared almonds served in paper cones- although you can get a whole selection of various nuts covered in various different flavours to fill you up. They are da bomb. Ginormous stalls filled with all kinds of fruits covered in chocolate and skewered on a stick, kebab style, can be found at pretty much any market, and for a sweet and savoury combo you could go instead for a kartoffelpuffer which is a fried potato pancake normally served with apple sauce or some kind of jam.
At the most Christmassiest of the markets you can expect your food stall holders to be wearing some kind of traditional outfit or at least matching hats like the guys in the picture below, but obv that’s at the stall holder’s discretion, you know how it is.
All the handmade goods!!!
A classic Weihnachtsmarkt should be stocked with all manner of artisanal crafts harking back to the good old days of yesteryear. Carved wooden decorations and dolls, nutcrackers, jewellery and basically anything that looks handmade but in a really awesome and professional way. Also for some reason pretty much every market will have a stall selling a selection of really brilliant looking wooden brushes and brooms, which I actually kind of appreciated though I have no need to actually buy one while I’m here. What a shame.
See the real life Father Christmas!!
My favourite and most Christmassy of all the markets in Hamburg (and at this point I think I’ve now visited at least eight of them), is the one outside Rathaus, right in the centre. And I shall tell you why. Not only is it similar in appearance to a small village of log cabins where a bunch of elves might live, and not only does it have the exact right ratio of mulled wine aroma to chill in the air, but three times an evening…FATHER CHRISTMAS LITERALLY FLIES OVER THE MARKET IN HIS SLEIGH. Yep. He flies right the way across the square, to the top of an extremely tall Christmas tree right in the middle of all the action, where he waves to everyone below, and tells a story. (The time I saw the full event, he told the story of Rudolph. Good lad.)
All I’m saying is: you should have seen my FACE.
The city also holds a Christmas parade every Saturday during Advent (that’s the four Sundays leading up to Christmas), which just adds to the general jolliness and festive feelings.
Alternative Christmas markets
Let’s not forget here guys, as I’ve said before, each and every Weihnachtsmarkt is a whole uniquely different experience to the next, but there are a few around and about that are on a somewhat more unique scale than others. Here in Hamburg I live two minutes away from Santa Pauli (ie, the market for the Sankt Pauli area). You may or may not be aware that although in some ways it’s a fairly bang on trend hipster kind of an area, it’s also for want of a better phrase, the city’s red light district, and Santa Pauli reflects the area very well, with a giant disco ball and show stage at one end, stalls (both traditional and non-tra-dish) that stay open a whole lot later than your average market, and even an adults-only tent featuring go-go dancers and strippers galore. That seems like a pretty popular place.
The WinterDom, Northern Germany’s biggest funfair, is located just around the corner from Santa Pauli, and although it closes once all the Weihnachtsmarkts have begun, it still adds to the Christmas cheer for a while, just in a more carnival style fashion. It does seem to stretch on for about 500 miles of rides, games, and sugared almond stalls, but these are in vans and comedy shaped huts as opposed to a more cosy log cabin, so it definitely doesn’t count as a Weihnachtsmarkt but is still worth a mention I’d say.
- Every market is different, even down to the things they sell: glass in the Bavarian Forest, marzipan in Lübeck, ornaments in the Erzgebirge mountains, printen in Aachen…the list goes on.
- Even if you only stick to one town or city, still trying to see a few markets while you’re there is a good idea as even they will differ!
- Take cash. Germany is one of the few countries I’ve visited in Europe where even a lot of the permanent shops are cash only. At a market it goes without saying that cards will not be accepted.
- Don’t eat anything before you go. There’s too much tasty food to not try anything.
- Wrap up warm, as a mug of glühwein will not ward off that chill no matter how much alcohol is in it.
- Most markets close earlier than you’d expect- by 8 or 9pm at the latest.