From Christmas trees to gingerbread, German culture has long been a major contributor to today’s widely celebrated winter traditions. And although the occurrence of Christmas markets – where the town’s craftsmen sell toys and sweets for the upcoming celebration – is one of their oldest and most loved traditions, these festive fairs are now springing up across the globe.
If you are not planning a trip to Germany this holiday season, four great Christmas markets can be enjoyed in the United States, Japan, France and England. While these markets may be in different countries, they have not lost their charm and authenticity, and are all rooted in ancient tradition.
Chicago, United States
Chicago’s snug Christkindlmarket has taken over the city’s Daley Plaza, located downtown in the Loop, since 1996. Most of the merchants are German, and the chalets carry wooden signs with the name of the vendor’s hometown, from big cities like Dresden – where one of the oldest Christmas markets is still held today – to small villages like Zwiesel in the Bavarian Forest.
Mulled wine and hot chocolate make the Midwest winter more than bearable, and sauerkraut and Munich’s Spaten – one of Germany’s oldest beers, brewed since 1397 -- draw people from all over the city for an authentic European experience. An unexpected treasure is the traditional cuckoo clocks that are brought over from Germany’s Black Forest region every year, exclusively for sale at the market. And this year’s market, running until 24 December, brings a new programme to teach children about German Christmas traditions with well-known songs and poems.
“We’re expecting more than a million people to join us at the market this year, including famous actors and sports stars,” said Maren Biester, vice president of German-American Services, the organisation that plans German events in the city, including the annual Oktoberfest.
Under the bridge of the Umeda Sky Building in Kita-ku, Osaka’s business district, the almost 40 chalets are visited by more than 1.4 million visitors each year. “Willkommen zum Weihnachtsmarkt” – Welcome to the Christmas Market– reads the sign at the entrance.
“Osaka carries the only authentic market of its nature and size in all of Asia; and it continues to inspire other cities to create similar events,” explained Andreas Pfister, founder of AGP Promotion Asia, the event agency that started the Osaka market.
From mid November to 25 December, children and adults get a taste of a typical German Christmas, with a German beer house serving Löwenbräu (which has been brewed since the 14
Century in Munich), homemade gingerbread and fruit cakes, as well as Dallmayr coffee imported from Munich. The rather unusual harp-playing Santa – although not particularly German – entertains the visitors, and a 27m-high Christmas tree with more than 200,000 lights triumphs over the square.
Fourteen containers made the six-week ship journey from Hamburg to Osaka this year, with the historical carousel and its hand-painted wooden horses the biggest item transported. The bratwurst, however, is made in Japan using a German recipe. “We want to offer the best quality to our Japanese friends, that’s why we don’t ship it,” Pfister said.
This cosy French city of roughly 66,000 people in the eastern Alsace region is home to five charming winter fairs, all part of La Magie de Noel (Christmas Magic) market, a tradition that dates back to the late Middle Ages. Surrounded by the rural hills of the Vosges, the city is the perfect setting to get in a festive mood. Narrow streets wind their way through the historic town centre, decorated with lights, bows and wooden ornaments, while the timber-framed houses, each in a different colour, add to the picturesque scene.
Many Alsatians have German roots, and so do the traditions at the Christmas market. While some vendors travel over the border from Germany, others celebrate their German heritage, such as the potters from Betschdorf. This former German region is renowned for its salt-glazed pottery, and the hand-made ceramics still made by family businesses should not be missed at the market today.
Besides the ice rink, the live nativity scene with a petting zoo is an all-time favourite for children, while parents can discover traditional Alsatian recipes such as chocolate and cinnamon crêpes or tarte flambée, a pizza-like dish with onions and crème fraîche.
Colmar’s winter event has grown in size and popularity. “With Germany and Switzerland close by, we get a mix of nationalities at the market each year,” said Pauline Chaboche, the Colmar Tourism press officer. The festivities usually begin in late November and last for six weeks. This year they can be visited until 31 December.
Hot sweet chestnuts were among the first items sold at German Christmas markets during the Middle Ages, and they can still be enjoyed at Manchester’s Christmas fair today.
The city’s award-winning market , originally purely German but now a colourful mix of European heritage, is held in eight scenic city locations and runs until 23 December. Beginning in 1998 with 17 chalets, it today has more than 200 of the wooden houses, with vendors travelling from Spain, Hungary and Romania as well as Germany.
“St. Ann’s Square was the first market location when it launched [and it is still] known for authentic German produce,” said Paul Simpson, managing director of Visit Manchester. This includes gingerbread hearts, roasted almonds and hot spiced wine, but also handcrafted jewellery and leather bags. Twinkling chalets and Christmas trees are decorated with lights and bows and festive music is played to sing along to.
“Christmas is a time of the year where we can celebrate the festive spirit as a community. The markets do just that,” Simpson said.