Seeing as it’s the Christmas season, it seemed only appropriate that I write about one of my favorite European winter traditions: Christmas markets. When I studied abroad in Cologne, Germany, going to the Christmas markets was absolutely one of my favorite memories. They’re becoming a bit more popular now in the States (I hear the one in Chicago is particularly impressive), but perhaps I’m a bit spoiled or biased, because those in Europe, especially Germany, will always be number one in my heart. Give me the choice between doing my Christmas shopping at an American mall or spending the afternoon perusing a Weihnachtsmarkt with a mug of mulled wine in one hand and a potato pancake in the other, and that decision is a no-brainer for me.
Christmas markets only last for about a month, and it’s incredible to believe that for all the hard work, materials, and time that goes into constructing and building one, it’ll all get torn down after Christmas, only to be built again the next year. Their atmosphere is wonderful; everyone is in the best of moods, content to sip hot drinks, joke with friends, peruse the various stalls, and just generally let the time pass by. Never did I go to a Christmas market thinking, “I’ll only be here for a half hour.”
It’s easy to become intoxicated by the atmosphere of the Christmas markets and wander up and down the aisles of stalls, whether you’re in the mood to buy something or just window shop. When it comes to their wares, Christmas markets can make even the snobbiest of shoppers swoon. Gorgeous, intricate paper lanterns, rustic wooden handicrafts, blown-glass ornaments, and jewelry in every possible price grade beckon from one stall after another. In my experience, the people manning the market stalls are among the friendliest. Once, when I was hauling around some visiting friends who spoke no German whatsoever, one woman selling jewelry was content to coach me through translating our conversation, rather than use her own more-than-adequate English.
Of all the things I’d bought at the Cologne Christmas markets, my favorite remains an adorable, lavender-scented polar bear filled with beans. My first winter in Aomori, he proved invaluable during the winter months…popping him in the microwave for a few minutes and then shoving him under my bedcovers saved my feet on many nights. Definitely some of the best euros I’ve ever spent. And if memory serves correctly, I got my grandmother (who hates the winter cold even more than I do) a pair of slippers that served a similar function.
As much as I love the shopping aspect of Christmas markets, it should come as no surprise that the largest portion of my affection is due to all of the delicious food and drink available. There aren’t many parts of Japanese culture that genuinely irritate me, but the fact that it’s considered uncivilized to eat and walk at the same time is one of them. Thankfully, Germany has no such custom. It’s totally kosher to grab a hot drink and food and waltz your way through the markets. And I did that. A lot.
Wants nuts? You’ve got nuts. Nutella-covered walnuts, roasted hazelnuts, almonds dusted with salt – just take your pick. Just craving a light snack? Grab a bag of popcorn. Need something heartier? How about piping hot sausages, or some kabobs groaning with the weight of grilled meat and vegetables? You can buy all those and more, including Stollen (a German loaf bread filled with fruit, nuts, and sometimes marzipan and topped with powdered sugar), Lebkucken (gingerbread), potato pancakes topped with applesauce, and as much chocolate as your body can handle.
German Christmas markets also offer the perfect liquid complement to all that food. For children, hot chocolate will probably suffice, but adults get to have the real fun. Of course you can get glasses of beer, but in the cold German weather, that’s not exactly ideal. Far better is the Glühwein (mulled red wine), with its hints of citrus, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon, or Eierpunsch. Eierpunsch is similar to eggnog; its base is a few eggs, which are then mixed with a bottle (…or two) of white wine, plenty of sugar, some cloves and cinnamon, and a bit of vanilla. If you’re feeling really festive, you can even add in some rum or Eierlikör (egg-flavored liqueur). It’s definitely an acquired taste, but delicious nonetheless. For me, my preferred drink was a mug of hot chocolate with a shot (…or two) of amaretto added in. It’s the perfect way to warm yourself up on a cold winter’s day.
At first, these mugs of drinks might seem shockingly expensive. They’ll usually cost you about five euros or so apiece, which may cause a case of sticker shock. However, that also included the cost of the drink’s mug. Once you’re finished, you can return it back to any of the drink stalls for a refund of a few euros. Each of the markets have a specific mug, so I was keen on collecting as many of them as I could to keep as souvenirs. In my mind, it was the sort of keepsake that had a memory linked with it. At home in America, I think there are five or six of those mugs lining one of my family’s kitchen cupboards.
One of the most common misconceptions of people who have never been to Germany is the belief that its people are cold and unfriendly, but Christmas markets completely disprove this. They offer a window into one of this culture’s warmest times, even when the weather might be the opposite. Once you’ve got a mug of Glühwein in your hand, you’ll be a believer for life.