This was the year we were going to bring our kids and grandkids to visit European Christmas markets. We had planned to base in Bratislava, where we used to live, and hit markets in Blava, Budapest, and Vienna, and perhaps some smaller ones in between.
When the Delta variant spread, we canceled the trip. It was the right decision. Vienna and Bratislava are on COVID lockdown. Many German markets closed abruptly and those in the Czechia and Slovakia are closed as well. So, this year Christmas Markets live on memories and dreams. I hope this virtual tour of European Christmas Markets offers holiday cheer.
When we lived in Central Europe and the Balkans, we were Christmas Market regulars. We have a collection of Gluhwein (glow wine) mugs to prove it. These gatherings featured hand-made crafts, often the craftsmen and women were on site, glass blowers, sewers, potters, even blacksmiths. Buy form the artist. It was an antidote for commercialism.
And then there is the food. All the markets had Gluhwein and sweets, brats, and other sausages. Some are almost like local farmer’s markets. Obuda, on the Buda side of Budapest, has cheeses, breads, and preserves as well as muscle powered carnival rides. Over on the Pest side markets have bubbling caldrons of goulash, soups, and stews plus wonderful funnel cake.
The Christmas markets engage all the senses. In Budapest especially the smells predominate, wood fires, grilling meat, bubbling savory stews, cinnamon, clove and spices. Sweet dough either deep frying or being cooked on a rotisserie.
All of the markets have the sounds of carols, perhaps a hurdy gurdy, the ring of a bell choir or a blacksmiths’ hammer.
All of them have sights, skilled crafts, artwork, textiles, glittering lights, and projections on buildings.
Taste? What do you want, hot mulled wine, sweet cakes, savory stews, curry wurst?
And there is the touch of cold on your cheeks, a drop of rain or flake of snow, the feel of fabric looking at scarves, mittens or hats. At some fairs the feeling in your stomach as you ride the “Christmas Thriller,” a holiday themed tilt ‘o whirl in one market a Christmas haunted house in another, or a Ferris Wheel, or carrousel. Perhaps pony rides through a forest of Christmas trees with red balls in Salzburg or a sleigh ride pulled by reindeer.
Christmas markets are in town squares, church cloisters, along boulevards or, in the case of Valkenburg, in the Netherlands, in caves under a castle. Caves that have sheltered religious dissenters, resistance fighters and American Intelligence officers who would pop up after hiding in the caves to see what the Nazi’s were doing. Each group left its graffiti on cave the walls, including Kilroy.
Christmas markets are expanding beyond their central European birthplace to the fringes of Europe, England on one side, Serbia on the other. And they spread beyond Europe to Jordan, Cairo and even America, where cities advertise European style Christmas markets.
When we lived in Bratislava, we were in Central Europe Central with markets in every direction. When we worked further afield, we had stopovers in Europe on the way home and could stop at Christmas in airline hub cities. Sometimes, we stopped to see our friends Dave and Carol Lam in Brussels and did market hopping with them.
Then the markets started moving our way. Belgrade’s appeared while we lived there, a New Year’s Market. Budapest, just a couple of hours up the road from Belgrade had three markets that we visited the Friday after Thanksgiving, staying until Sunday. And in the Middle East Suzi found a German style market in Cairo and Rich found two, one of them really over the top, in Amman, Jordan. It had booths that sold handicrafts made by beneficiaries of various royal foundations. Carolers sang Jingle Bells and Rudolph in Arabic and women in hajibs posed with Santa Claus. There was no gluhwein but there was hot coffee and chocolate. Markets also expanded in other ways. Munich now has a Pink Christmas Market dedicated to holiday cheer presented by the LGBTQ community. I asked one of the promoters what it was like since it was opening the week after I was there and he said; “You know, Halloween only it’s Christmas.”
Christmas markets traditionally ran during the liturgical season of Advent. Today Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. In the years before the pandemic Europe experienced “Advent Creep.” Traditionally markets started the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent. If the first Sunday in Advent came in December, markets started a week earlier. Some markets moved their start dates up to November 11 (we’ll come back to that date) to coordinate with the start of the German Fasching (Carnival) season — and to get the jump on other markets. European River cruises gave Christmas Markets incentive to open early. Early markets helped companies sell cruises to fill the gap between the fall season and the traditional Christmas market season.
In 2018 German Catholic and Lutheran churches joined forces to protest “Advent Creep” and lobbied cities not to close their streets and squares to traffic until the Friday before the first Sunday in Advent to discourage Advent creep. Essen’s Catholic diocese wrote:
“We don’t want to be spoilsports,” but “it is important for us, as devout Christians, to point out…that Christmas is not some year-end cultural celebration with lights but the festivity that marks the birth of Jesus.”
This is not the first time that holiday markets have helped trigger changes in the Advent season. To understand this this we need some history of Advent.
Christmas was originally set in December by the Romans to co-opt the solstice celebrations “Saturnalia” where there was a great deal of feast and frolic. After the Sack of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 the Roman infrastructure began to collapse, and Europe entered a 400-year long cycle of famine. By 460 we see references to Advent as a 40-day period of fasting and penance before Christmas. During that period there could be no weddings, because weddings meant feasts.
The theological reason for fasting was to prepare for the return of the Messiah and for penance, to prepare for judgement that should surely come soon. Practically fasting was a way to conserve food supplies at the beginning of winter to make them last longer during an expected famine season. It was mirrored on the other end of winter by the other great fast, the 40-day Lenten fast.
As time progressed and as famines became less of an annual event (although in no way ended in Europe) fasting became less common. By the 13th century, about the same time the early Christmas Markets appeared, fasting in the Western Church was mostly observed in monastic orders. Penance and some other forms of abstinence were still encouraged for the general population.
Markets may have had something to do with the change in Advent fasting. Central European cities held their markets in their main square. Four times a year, people not only brought foods to markets (as they did every week) but came in to sell goods they had made; furniture, toys, baskets, and, in the December markets, preserves, cured meats, baked goods and wine. It’s hard to fast at a market when you need to taste the wine and the preserves. These December markets became festive affairs.
The December market was first recorded in Vienna in 1298. They spread throughout German speaking Europe through the next century. December markets became known as Advent markets, or in some places, Nicholas markets, because they fell on or near St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). The custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day. had become common. So, these markets also started selling toys. The market in Salzburg was the called Knick Knack Market both in honor of the saint and because it sold toys and ornaments.
Martin Luther didn’t like the idea of Nicholas bringing gifts to kids; he thought gifts should come from the Christ Child as a symbol of the gift of salvation that also came from Christ. Gifts should come on Christmas not St. Nicholas day. In Lutheran areas of Germany, the markets were renamed Chriskindel, or “Christ Child” markets and the markets became associated with Christmas. That name spread, but it was only after the end of World War II that big markets in Catholic cities like Salzburg and Vienna adopted the name Chriskindel. In the Low countries some are still Nicholas Markets.
Several traditional Advent symbols are displayed at Chriskindel markets. Almost all have manger scenes. In some markets the Christ Child is placed in the manger on Christmas Eve. All have Christmas trees. Many have large Advent wreathes and some have Advent calendars with a new door open each day. In Germany, many Christmas markets have Christmas pyramids, structures with a food stall at the bottom frying up bratwurst or potato pancakes and propeller on top, driven by the rising hot air and cooking fumes, which help turn the middle levels of the pyramid, which have the manger scene, three kings, shepherds and angels. Modern pyramids have electric motors. But in most European Christmas Markets today Santa Claus gets bigger billing than Christ. Carols are as much secular as holy and some markets have rebranded as Winterland, or Winter Festival although in Jordan it’s “Christmas on the Boulevard.”
This year has been chaotic for the markets. Many never opened. Some were canceled just days before opening. Some markets did open. Frankfurt had booths widely spaced for distancing. Budapest opened with the market square fenced off, vendors masked and a requirement to show vaccination proof before being allowed in. In Vienna, Nuremburg and Dresden markets were opened — and packed — until they were abruptly ordered shut. Vendors in Vienna hope that the current surge of COVID in Europe will end soon enough to allow them to open for a week or so before Christmas to salvage some of the season.
If you are missing the markets and want to take a virtual tour you can click here and chose the markets you want to visit. You will also find posts from Sitka’s boat parade and our own holiday markets. There are 36 posts from markets as far afield as Amman, Jordan; Cairo, Egypt; and Yerevan Armenia.