For hundreds of years, merchants have erected small wooden huts in the ancient centers of cities and towns all across Germany at Christmas, where artisans peddle handicrafts, baked goods, regional cuisine and millions of liters of Glühwein (mulled wine) to help keep Jack Frost away. For the month of December, right up to the 24th, and in some cases until New Year's, the country's world-famous Christmas markets offer a sort of mini Oktoberfest all across the country, where dirndl-clad Bavarian bar wenches, beer and pretzels are replaced with Saint Nicholas, Glühwein, gingerbread, fruitcake, speculatius and other holiday delights.
With regular December snowfall, in many Germany cities, a White Christmas is almost guaranteed at a number of local Weihnachstmärkte (Christmas markets) or Christkindlmärkte. The most famous include Nuremberg's Christmas market, which draws millions each year and dates back to the 16th century, and Dresden's Striezelmarkt, famous for its delicious, powdered sugar-coated Stollen fruit cakes.
The markets are a major draw, luring 160 million visitors from around the world to more than 2,500 Christmas markets. These temples to Christmas spirit also provide a needed once-a-year booster shot in the arms of local economies, with total Christmas market-related tourism spending estimated at close to 5 billion per year. Not bad for an oversized crafts and bake sale.
Germany's Christmas markets offer something for everyone -- be it Berlin's upscale Gendarmenmarkt Winter Fairy Tale, Cologne's medieval-themed Christmas market, an "erotic" one catered to adults in Hamburg's fabled St. Pauli pleasure district or even a Berlin-based market with discounted prices aimed at the long-term unemployed.
And despite the focus on commerce, there is something vaguely non-commercial about the country's tradition of Christmas markets. About sharing the pleasure of a mug of mulled wine with friends after work or delicately pulling the shells off roasted chestnuts in a small paper bag. Occasionally, you might even find a gift in the markets, which serve as the perfect antidote to department stores, chain shops and overly commercialized high streets that whip out the Christmas decorations as early as October.
SPIEGEL ONLINE has put together highlights of some of our favorite Christmas markets across Germany. It is by no means comprehensive, and we welcome you to submit your own Christmas market experiences, your Christmas memories, recipes and digital photos to email@example.com. We will publish the best in our Germany Survival Bible Guide to Christmas in Germany.
There is no shortage of local delicacies in Nuremberg, which has Germany's best-known Christmas market and is world-famous for its Lebkuchen gingerbread cakes and little Nuremberger sausages, served in portions of four, six, eight or 12 with a pile of sauerkraut. Its 180 stalls with red and white striped canvas roofs are lined up in the historic setting of the main market square at the foot of the medieval castle.
The organizers are at pains to prevent the market becoming too tacky. Plastic Christmas trees or branches are taboo, as is the playing of taped Christmas music. You won't find fairground rides either. On the downside, the market's worldwide appeal means it gets extremely crowded, especially at weekends. And queuing endlessly for one's sausage in the drizzle can be a pain.
-- David Crossland
The formerly East German city of Dresden boasts Germany's oldest Christmas market, replete with local treats and traditions. This year, several million Christmas-kitsch enthusiasts will flock to the 572nd Striezelmarkt on Dresden's Altmarkt square.
The Striezelmarkt gets its name from the city's world-famous Christstollen, a bread-like fruitcake that was originally called "striezel" in central German dialects. The striezel was invented in Dresden around 1450 and is still sold today as the Original Dresdner Stollen -- a deserving name, since (in classic German fashion) only authorized vendors who adhere to the "original" recipe may use the authentic label.
Dresden's Christmas market began in 1434 as a one-day meat market for the privileged Electorate of Saxony under Frederick II, a.k.a. Frederick the Gentle. Over time, it evolved into a more dynamic Christmas market for all classes. Not only that: In 1471, church leaders convinced city officials to bestow "a striezel unto the poor on Christmas."
Although the days of free stollen and mulled wine on the house are long gone, anyone with just a handful of euros can enjoy a number of local specialties in addition to the usual run-of-the-mill Christmas kitsch. Most notably, Dresden's Christmas market culminates every year in the biggest striezel-debauchery of all: the Stollenfest. On this noteworthy day, a four-ton mega-stollen makes its way through the old city to the Striezelmarkt, where portions are sold to the general public after an attractive Stollenmädchen (literally: "stollen girl") cuts the giant fruitcake with the traditional "Dresdner Stollen Knife."
-- Alex Bakst