Each December small wooden huts twinkling with lights gather across the country to celebrate local handicrafts and delicacies. But it’s not just shopping: a Christmas market is as much about the pleasure of splitting a bag of roasted chestnuts with friends and soaking up Christmas spirit – along with a mug or two of steaming Glühwein.

A brief history

The first Christmas market almost certainly went unrecorded, but the 1294 Vienna market has to be one of the earliest. Around this time the idea caught on among Czechs, and it was just over the border in Bautzen in 1384 that a Christmas market was first recorded in Germany.

The earliest markets mainly sold meat, but over time they grew to include local handicrafts. This trade got a terrific boost from the sixteenth-century teachings of Martin Luther who suggested the birth of Christ would be a better time to exchange gifts than the traditional saints’ days of St Nicholas (December 6), or St Martin (November 11). But despite having roots in religious veneration, Christmas markets – usually held by the city’s main church to attract church-goers – soon competed with the churches themselves. As early as 1616 a Nuremberg priest complained he’d had to abandon a Christmas Eve service because all of his congregation were at the market. This was also the time when Christmas gift-buying took off – and up until the nineteenth century the markets remained the main place to buy seasonal toys and treats. Today, Germany’s markets attract a staggering 160 million visitors a year and market-related revenues are around €5 billion.

Food and drink

Many towns keep their warming Christmas recipes a closely guarded secret, even trademarked, with Nuremberg’s Lebkuchen, a soft spiced gingerbread that’s been produced since the fourteenth century, probably the most famous. In the Rhineland and Westphalia, Spekulatius – cardamom and cinnamon biscuits – are common, while the heavy Stollen fruitcake is particularly associated with Saxony.

The seasonal drink of choice is Glühwein (mulled wine) and its non-alcoholic cousin Kinderpunsch. Feuerzangenbowle – red wine, flavored by a flaming rum-dipped block of sugar – and Eierpunsch (a sort of eggnog) are also popular.

Crafts

Traditional handmade wooden crafts are the most popular and include crib figurines, toys, marionettes and nutcrackers. Look out for the wooden Weihnachtspyramide – in which the heat from candles rotates a nativity scene – and the jovial little Räuchermänchen – figures that serve as incense holders and puff smoke from their mouths. Much of this woodwork comes from the Erzgebirge on the Czech border, where the Christmas market in Schneeberg is particularly good for such things.

Christmas for kids

Kids visiting Christmas markets will usually find a carousel, a few games or rides and sometimes an ice rink. Other draws often include street performers, nativity plays, puppet theatres and concerts; and there’s always a nativity scene – sometimes populated by a petting zoo of real animals, such as sheep, donkeys and goats. But Germany’s best kids’ Christmas market is doubtless that of the Europa-Park.

Christmas in the city

Though smaller towns often have particularly atmospheric markets (see the German tourist-board’s germany-christmas-market.org.uk), many of Germany’s larger cities have great Christmas festivities. Among them are:

Bremen

The attractive market on the main square aside, Bremen also has a medieval maritime market, where you can fire crossbows, have your fortune told and watch magic. Look out too for free outdoor performances of the Stadtmusikanten fairy tale.

Cologne

The main market is by the cathedral, which also forms the motif for much of its famed Spekulatius. Other novelties include the medieval Chocolate Museum market, which has acrobats, entertainers and stallholders in period costume. Look out for local speciality Meth, a honey wine.

Dresden

Dresden’s invention of the Stollen is celebrated in the jovial Stollenfest, in which a four-tonne example journeys through the city before being carved into more bite-sized portions.

Frankfurt

Despite skyscrapers and banking, Frankfurt’s Römerberg market, with its giant Christmas tree, vintage carousel and half-timbered facades, is atmospheric and fun.

Hamburg

Highlights include a cheerful circus-designed market, with wandering performers; the stylish Winterzauber market with ice bar, skating rink and puppet theatre; the Finnish-themed Fleetinsel market; and the irreverent Santa Pauli market in the red-light district, where Santas in lewd poses sit atop stalls selling kinky knickers and sex toys.

Munich

The Marienplatz market is wonderfully atmospheric and great for handicrafts, but Münchener Freiheit is more relaxed and has better food.

Nuremberg

Nuremberg’s delightful huddle of red-and-white-striped canvas on an old square below the castle is deservedly popular, with two million annual visitors. The Lebkuchen is its hallmark, but look out for Nürnberger Zwetschgamännla: little figures made from prunes.

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