Europe’s Christmas Markets—A Centuries-Old Tradition

Celebrate seasonal customs and traditions in beautiful historical settings.

Vienna, Austria

Photo: iStock

For more than 500 years, Christmas markets in Europe have been highlights—both with locals and visitors—of the holiday season, signaling the beginning of Advent. Instead of driving to the mall, modern shoppers, bundled up to brave the snow, still wander among wooden stalls at some of the hundreds of traditional Christmas markets, sipping mulled wine and searching for the perfect nutcracker, cuckoo clock and homemade gingerbread. (The Christmas music is a 20th century addition.)

The tradition, which goes back to the late Middle Ages in the German-speaking areas of Europe, has over the centuries spread across Europe and even to the U.S. (Chicago has a famous one), the U.K. and Canada.

But the place of Christmas markets in the holiday traditions of Germany and other European nations is deeply rooted. They first emerged in Germany at a time when regular seasonal markets were held year-round. Those early winter markets, often comprising goods just laid out on the streets, offered hardworking villagers a chance to socialize and purchase local delicacies and traditional gifts and decorations. These early signs of commercialism and holiday gift-giving often took place near the city’s main houses of worship to attract churchgoers.

Lucky mushroom prune people in Germany

Photo: iStock

The earliest winter markets included those in Munich, Bautzen and Frankfurt, but most consider Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt in 1434—a one-day event that focused on selling meat for the Christmas dinner that would end the Advent fast—to be the oldest official Christmas market in Germany.

Now in its 583rd year, the Striezelmarkt is known for its Dresden Stollen Festival, highlighted by the baking of the world’s largest stollen cake, and a 46-foot Christmas pyramid that symbolizes a traditional holiday decoration from the Erzgebirge region.

Some experts say religious reformer Martin Luther helped increase business at the Christmas markets when he established new Christmas customs. Before Luther, gift exchanges were held on the saint days of St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 or St. Martin on Nov. 11. Luther rejected the deification of saints in favor of replacing St. Nicholas with the Christ child as the gift-giver on Christmas Eve. This is how Christkindlesmarkt became a popular name for many Christmas markets, especially in southern Germany. And though many Germans still observe St. Nicholas Day by placing chocolates in their children’s shoes, Christmas is the reigning day for exchanging gifts.

Local families—and more than 2 million visitors—look forward each year to the appearance of a child representing the Christ child on Christmas Eve at the popular Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, a 150-plus stall market crammed with local artisans offering Christmas goodies. Check out the Zwetschgenmännle, or “prune people”—figures decorated with dried prunes—and well-crafted wooden toys for which the region is known.

Today, most medium-sized towns across Germany have at least one Christmas market in the period leading up to Dec. 25. The capital city of Berlin has more than 80!

Other historically significant Christmas markets include those in neighboring Vienna, where baroque architecture is especially stunning when adorned with colored lights and markets are set up at City Hall and other major sites across the city; the border city of Strasbourg, France, where the Christkindlesmärik dates to 1570 and features hundreds of mini chalets selling Alsatian Christmas ornaments and local arts and crafts; and Hungary’s capital city of Budapest, where the Christmas market at Vörösmarty Square sells Hungarian street food (think chimney cakes and hot sausages!) and homemade candles, pottery, knitwear and folk art.

River Beatrice on the Danube

Photo: Uniworld Boutique River Cruises

Whether you visit a big city market where you can do all your shopping or a more intimate market where you can nibble your marzipan and chat with vendors, the experience is sure to bathe you in good old-fashioned Christmas spirit.

An increasingly popular way to visit Europe’s Christmas markets is by river cruises during November and December along the Danube or the Rhine. According to Jochen Kargl, a hotel director for Viking River Cruises, “This is a beautiful season in which cities in Eastern and Western Europe almost have a competition for the best holiday decorations and Christmas markets.”

Viking’s 8-day Christmas in Germany cruise sails between Nuremberg and Cologne and focuses on Germany and the heart of Christmas market country, while Uniworld’s 8-day Danube Holiday Markets cruise between Budapest and Passau enables guests to shop in markets in four countries. These are popular, so book early!

AAA Travel offers an extensive variety of European tour packages and river cruises. Call 877-396-7159 or contact a AAA Travel Counselor for details

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Janice Yip-Hudson, AAA Travel Counselor, Daly City, Calif.

Today, people's lives are so busy. We're thinking three days ahead just to get through our to-do lists. I love helping my clients plan vacations where they have nothing to do but relax; where time stands still, and you're just on vacation.

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