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.