German Christmas Markets: An Alternative Guide
By now even the most belligerent among us know that Christmas is slowly creeping up , ready to thrust the blade of Christmas cheer between our ribs and laugh manically as we bleed out under the mistletoe. The steady build up of festive shopfront decorations, as well as the release of Christmas themed advertising with budgets that dwarf that of the moon landing indicate that we are about the enter December and with it the arrival of German Christmas markets; or as we call them in Germany, Christmas Markets.
I have yet to reach the zenith of Christmas hysteria, which only arrives after a nameless American soft drinks company drives an articulated truck through my garden. In order to begin my process of turning from Grinch to jolly St Nic, I have been reading the many Christmas market guides that we are inundated with at this time of year. Much of these focus on the best locations, the traditions or the food, but somehow fail to provide readers with the practical advice they need when they visit Germany during advent. Living in Nürnberg, the unofficial capital of Christmas Markets, I feel I might have some useful advice to help make your festive visit a success.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent after arriving at many of Germany’s Weihnachtsmarkts is that space is at a premium, especially in the more popular destinations. The larger the market, the more stands there will be and thus the smaller the space available to navigate. In part this creates a sense of intimacy, if by intimacy you mean being able to taste the recently eaten Feuerwehrwurst of the person standing next to you.
With two million visitors to Nürnberg alone, it can be a tight fit, especially on weekends. So, it pays to have some level of self awareness. For British visitors, take care to note that not only do Germans drive on the “wrong side of the road” but they also walk on it too. If in doubt, keep to the right and all should be well.
Every Other Market is Better
Germany is a country of many regions and in some cases, regions within regions. Arriving in Nürnberg, you have not only entered Bavaria, but also the Democratic Republic of Franken. As many Franconians will happily tell you, it is a very different place from Bavaria. Even if it looks, smells and sounds exactly like Bavaria, it isn’t and for the love of god don’t argue with this notion.
With regional pride being a major factor in Germany, everyone and their reindeer will tell you that the Christkindlmarkt in the centre of Nürnberg is a commercialised travesty and the best Christmas markets can be found outside the city, usually located in the village of whoever happens to be complaining. Although there are many great markets in the local area, Fürth and Erlangen being some of the closest, don’t be fooled by locals telling you that their local Christmas Market is the best in Germany. They all say that.
All Hail the Feuerzangenbowle
Most people coming to a German Christmas market will know about glühwein, but they may be totally unaware of its psychotic cousin the Feuerzangenbowle. Where glühwein provides a comfy winter warmer and a little bit of the alcohol buzz, Feuerzangenbowle karate chops all concepts of comfort and replaces it with the raging fire of alcohol infused sugar.
Mostly sold in specialised stands, the Feuerzangenbowle is made by soaking a large pyramid of sugar in Rum, setting it on fire and allowing it to slowly dissolve into a pot of glühwein. It is essentially the proto Jäegerbomb, with festive overtones. Whether it’s the sugar or the booze that gets you first, either way too many of these can turn a pleasant night of Christmas shopping into a sugar and rum fuelled rampage. I would try it, but just be warned.
As you chat happily over a Schaschlik, do not be surprised if you are suddenly accosted by a walking talking Christmas decoration. You may well have just met the famous Christkind of Nürnberg. For those of you unaware of this festive phenomenon, strap yourselves in, it’s going to get weird.
The Christkind was devised by none other than protestant reformer Martin Luther, with the intention of refocusing religious minds towards the true meaning of Christmas, that is Christ. The fear that Christmas is being over-commercialised is an old trope, and Luther felt that people were not thinking about Jesus enough (insert Starbucks festive cup joke here). The Christkind represented the baby Jesus and became so popular, even the Catholics bought into the story, and now the Christkind is considered the main bringer of gifts at Christmas, not my ruddy faced namesake St Nicholas.
However, it gets weirder. The Christkind opens the Nürnberg Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) and although it should represent Jesus, the Christkind is actually portrayed by a woman, with a different local woman chosen every year. So, to sum up: a woman plays baby Jesus every year and children are taught that she/him/it brings the presents, not the red suit wearing charlatan Santa Claus. This may leave you with many questions. Don’t worry, just have a few Feuerzangenbowle and it will all make sense eventually.
Rudeness is relative
As I already mentioned, German Christmas markets can be a tight fit. Germans have found an effective way of dealing with this issue, which is that they will simply push past any obstacle in their way, be that prams, people or the Christkind. They will not say “excuse me” and they will not apologise should they spill boiling hot glühwein all over you. My advice to you should you feel the sharp elbows of a German market goer is: Get Over It.
You’re on their turf now and they have no obligation to follow what you may perceive to be manners. Sure, you can say “excuse me” till you are red in the face, but there is no faster way of navigating through a crowded market than shouldering your way through the masses. At this point it is practically tradition. So, should you stop to look at something pretty or to chat to someone, be aware that the Frankonians will have no problems walking through you to get to where they need to be. Don’t take it personally, its just part of the process.
Now you should be equipped with all the most important knowledge to make your trip to Germany a success, namely that baby Jesus is a woman, Feuerzangenbowle is the preferred weapon of choice and Germans care very little for your quaint polite ways. Go forth my friends and get Christmas hammered!