The art of the Christmas market: Some of you may have noticed that my column was not in the paper last week. That’s because I took a little vacation to Germany for nine days to visit my son and his family, who live in northern Bavaria. I chose December so that I could go to Christmas markets, something that Germany is rather famous for. Until this trip, I had never visited Germany in December.
In the relatively short time I was there, we managed to hit five Christmas markets – one in Weiden, where my family lives; one at Schloss Guteneck, in the rural town of Guteneck; two in the city of Regensburg; and a quaint little market in the town of Tirschenreuth. The Guteneck market and one of the Regensburg markets were on castle grounds, which makes for a pretty nice setting.
For the uninitiated, a German Christmas market is a festive (festive being almost an understatement) outdoor market featuring many vendors in rough-hewn wooden stalls decorated with twinkling lights and evergreen boughs. The markets offer everything one can think of to make one’s Christmas season merry – handmade crafts, local food, and warm nonalcoholic and alcoholic drinks, such as the popular mulled wine called gluehwein and an eggnog-like drink called eierpunsch (“egg punch”).
Punctuating the grounds of a Christmas market are numerous blazing fires in rock-ringed pits and metal barrels around which market attendees gather and stay warm while they gobble such deliciousness as flammkuchen, bratwurst, and potato pancakes topped with applesauce and sip on gluehwein (and kinderpunsch for the kids).
The feel of a Christmas market – or “Weihnachtsmarkt” – is decidedly medieval, which is no surprise, as Christmas markets go all the way back to the late Middle Ages.
The craftspeople tend to dress in period clothing, some demonstrating their old-fashioned skills for the public, such as Josef Weber, the bookbinder I watched slowly and carefully hand-stitching the cover onto a book he was making, and a robust-looking man using his time-honored skills to make beautiful baskets and birdhouses from a thick, round, reedy material.
Occasionally, one finds a vendor, such as the woman at the Schloss Guteneck market who made ceramic bird feeders and candleholders, that produces wares that are modern-looking. Her clay artwork, which also included the irresistible key-hook wall hanging I bought featuring tiny ceramic houses atop it, was very minimalist in nature. (Germany, for the most part, is an interesting mix of the very old and the very modern.)
But the old-fashioned definitely dominates at a Weihnachtsmarkt, which is why the markets are so appealing, never going out of style. Christmas markets take place during the four weeks of Advent, but one does not have to be religious to appreciate their beauty, cozy feeling, huge amount of offerings, and feeling of community.
Once I attended that first Christmas market in downtown Weiden (where I could not resist buying and eating a half-meter-long sausage in a rugged homemade bun), I was hooked. I found myself anticipating the good feeling I got from that Christmas market before each of the ones I attended after it, and they never failed to deliver.
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