The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the anticipation of the Christmas season is rising.. It is the beginning of Advent, the liturgical period for the celebration of the birth of Christ and the start of the Christmas markets in Europe.
In regions such as Alsace, Bavaria, Krakow, Saxony and cities such as Prague, Budapest and Nuremberg, the arrival of Advent marks the beginning of traditions typical of this time of year and of a seasonal gastronomy that unites them in a journey that smells of cinnamon, ginger, spiced bread and mulled wine.
You and I, we together embark on a journey of cuisine, culture and tradition through Europe Christmas markets!
Gingerbread, the flavour of Christmas in Alsace
We begin this journey in Alsace, the ultimate Christmas destination. From 10 am, the Christmas markets of Strasbourg, Colmar, Obernai or Riquewihr open and begin to sweeten the atmosphere with the aromas of the gastronomic chalets that share the space with the Christmas craft stalls of the markets.
Advent smells of ginger, cinnamon, lemon, orange, cloves and cardamom, the main ingredients of spice bread, a sweet bread of Egyptian origin popularised by French Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages.
Once considered a luxury good (it was used as a bargaining chip), today it is one of the star products of the Alsatian markets. It even has a museum dedicated to it in Gertwiller town – Musée du Pain d’Epices et de l’Art Populaire Alsacien with 10,000 objects explaining the history of this famous product, which for more than 500 years has had its own guild represented by a pretzel bear.
In Alsace, bread can also be seen in another popular form: gingerbread biscuits. To find out more about these, I go to Nuremberg, the other gingerbread city.
Ich liebe dich (and also Elisen Lebkuchen)
The gesture is repeated all over Europe. Every morning, the popular heart-shaped gingerbread biscuits that hang from the stalls at Christmas markets have to be repositioned. The large biscuits are often inscribed with messages of love, such as the sweet “Ich liebe dich” (I love you).
They are a more popular format of the traditional spice bread, but not the only one. If you’ve seen Shrek, you’ll probably recognise a human-shaped biscuit. If we could taste it, it would taste like this.
Nuremberg is another city where gingerbread has been made for years. And no other company there has moulded it like Lebkuchen-Schmidt. Its founder. In 1927, E. Otto Schmidt was going to sell a truckload of gingerbread that his brother had received as payment from a customer, but he decided to turn them into individual products and was very successful.
Among all the products of this popular brand, one stands out: the “Elisen Lebkuchen”, the most classic recipe with honey, marzipan, sugar, eggs and no flour. According to the associated legend, the biscuits are named after the company founder’s daughter Elisabeth. After the death of his wife, his daughter fell ill and, knowing the value of oriental spices, Otto Scmidt made a very special flourless gingerbread which revitalised his daughter Elisabeth.
Since then, Fraunholz’s Nuremberg “Elisen” gingerbread has been baked completely without flour and contains more than 40% almonds and walnuts. Nürnberger Lebkuchen are a must on a visit to the markets of Nuremberg and Germany in general – try them and savour them!
The world’s largest Feuerzangenbowle cauldron
Mulled wine is not the only thing served at Christmas markets. It’s 20:00 on a Friday in Advent and the stalls behind Nuremberg Cathedral are packed to capacity (before the pandemic). Glasses of Feuerzangenbowle, a punch made of dry red wine, cloves, cinnamon, lemon slices with rum and burnt sugar, are constantly being poured from the red-lit chalets decorated with large flames.
The large cauldrons used for the mixture stand out on the bars. Above the mouths of the pots, sugar cones are burnt with matches and held in place with feuerzange tongs so that the sugar is diluted in the pot.
When the cones are lit, large flames are produced, which are fanned with high-proof rum, usually of the Austrian brand Stroh.
A few streets down, just below the Fleischbänken leading to the Cathedral Square, there are hardly any chairs left in Die Nürnberger Feuerzangenbowle, a specially created large cauldron with a diameter of 2.50 metres and a height of 3.40 metres, which means a capacity of up to 9000 litres.
It takes 48 hours to heat the contents, which requires 40 kilowatt hours of electricity and is considered the world’s largest cauldron of Feuer, zangle and bowle (fruit drink) – a toast to the Feuerzangenbowle!
Dwarfs at the Heinzels Christmas market, Cologne
Cologne has many legends behind it, the main one being that the devil was responsible for the construction of its magnificent cathedral. Another very popular one is that of the Heinzels, which pays homage to a tale by Ernest Weyden according to which there were dwarves who worked at night while the inhabitants of Cologne slept.
Thanks to their work, the inhabitants of Cologne could live without worries. The dwarves could not be seen by humans because they disappeared. One day the tailor’s wife decided to go down to see them and as a result of her curiosity they disappeared, which forced the citizens of Cologne to work.
During Advent, these lovable characters “return” and take centre stage at the Christmas market on the Old Town Square. You can find them frolicking at the entrance gates of the markets, on the roofs of the craft chalets and even taking the chairlift next to the curling and skating rinks of this spectacular market.
They are also the stars of souvenir from Heinzels Christmas trips: the mulled wine mugs sold at the markets, for which you get a refund if you don’t keep the mug.
Ravennashclucht – most beautiful Christmas markets in Europe…
I have no doubt (unless I am pleasantly surprised) that the Ravennaschlucht Christmas market on the outskirts of Freiburg is the most beautiful in Europe. This market is located in a very special place: in the middle of a forest in the Black Forest between the stations of Himmelreich and Hinterzarten. Framed by the steep walls of the gorge and under the 40-meter-high (131 ft) railway viaduct of the Höllental Railway, a village of wooden huts invites you every year to go on a Christmas shopping spree.
Bonfires on the snow help to ease the cold, while at various points in the two chalet areas that make up the Christmas market you can find illuminated reindeer, tall Christmas trees and large snowmen.
If you’re lucky you’ll be able to visit when it’s snowed in, which is one more point on the scale of endearing Christmas experiences.
… and a chance to cross a Black Forest
But there’s more to Weihnachtsmarkt Ravennaschlucht. You can get there by car or train from Freiburg and/or on foot from Hinterzarten on the market trail through a beautiful Black Forest forest.
At night the Germans cross it on skis with headlamps, but if you don’t have one or dare to do the other, I recommend you cross it by day.
An unforgettable Christmas experience in the Black Forest.
Christmas pyramids (and the importance of light in Advent)
The Christmas pyramid (Weihnachtspyramide) is one of the most recognisable symbols of the Christmas markets of Europe, and is a common sight at German-influenced markets. The best food and drink stalls at Christmas markets are usually to be found under this large, illuminated, tiered tower topped by rotating blades.
This wooden figure originates from the Iron Mountains in Saxony, a mining region that had to be converted and found an opportunity for redevelopment in wood craftsmanship.
The large Christmas pyramids are built in several tiers with figurines on each tier and became popular until the 1950s in the area. At that time it is estimated that there were a total of 10 local pyramids. With the fall of the Wall in 1989, the real boom began: every village wanted to have their own for Christmas, and every year their inauguration was a cause for celebration, a tradition that continues today.
When find a market with a pyramid, I’m twice as happy!
Christkindl – the gift angel
If you have already visited a Christmas market in Germany, Switzerland or Austria, you may have noticed an angel-like figure with long, curly blond hair: Christkindel, a kind of angel who spreads goodness, hope and gifts on 24 December to well-behaved children in Alsace and countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria or Liechtenstein.
His figure is also very typical at Christmas markets. The beautiful Christkindelsmärik market in Strasbourg and the market on the Old Town Square in Nuremberg are named after him. In Nuremberg, she is the symbol of all Christmas traditions to the extent that every two years a girl is chosen to represent Chriskindel in the city. Her duties include going to schools and opening the city’s Christmas markets.
The Mannele of Strasbourg
Strasbourg is one of the most culturally interesting cities in Europe. In Advent it also becomes the Capitale de Nöel – the epicentre of Christmas in Alsace with several markets set up around the city, one of them one of the oldest in Europe. It also has another gastronomic symbol in Advent: Mannele – a brioche eaten on Saint Nicholas’ Day (6 December), very recognisable for its human shape, which originally represents the children who were resurrected by Saint Nicholas of Bari, the most important saint of Advent.
The original recipe includes only flour, butter, sugar, yeast and milk, and chocolate chips are often added. It is traditionally eaten as a snack with hot chocolate, but you can eat it and buy it at any time during Advent as it is sold in most bakeries and gourmet chalets at Christmas markets.
Elsewhere in Europe there is a similar brioche, in Germany known as the Weichnachtmann.
The fun ice rink in Vienna
The Christmas market on Rathausplatz – Vienna’s Town Hall Square is the largest in the city. It is one of the best in Europe as you can find a large number of craft chalets, but especially gastronomy. Sausages and cakes are the stars of Christmas in Vienna.
But there is more. One of the things most excited about when travel in winter is to find an ice rink. Every year from January to March, the square in front of Vienna’s City Hall turns into an over 9,000 m² (96.875 sq ft) large ice rink, a paradise for skating fans. In the evening, the entire square is transformed into a colourful sea of lights.
The fun ice rink in Vienna opens from midday and in the last half hour before closing at 21:00h you can skate with a small discount. Its special feature is its hilly circuit where you can either let your adrenaline flow or try to keep your balance.
One of best Christmas memories is usually skating to the rhythm of the music – it’s not Christmas without an ice rink!
The Nutcrackers of the Metallic Mountains
Nutcrackers have come to the fore in recent years in Christmas craft shops. These characters with their furious faces and different sizes are one of the most typical elements of the craftsmen of the Ore Mountains, the main producers of Christmas handicrafts in Germany.
Their origin is the sum of three influences: the children’s story “The Nutcracker King and Poor Reinhold” by Heinrich Hoffman, the magical world of the Brothers Grimm and the craftsman Friedirch Fütchner.
In the Grimm fairy tale “German Mythology” they symbolise protection and strength to their owners. However, the final popularisation as a Christmas icon dates back to 1870, when the craftsman Wilhelm Friedrich Füchtner decided to carve and assemble the first figurines inspired by the illustrations of the fairy tale “The Nutcracker King and Poor Reinhold” (1851) by Heinrich Hoffmann.
In this story, a sick child is taken on 24 December by a life-size nutcracker to a world where they come to life. When he wakes up, he finds them at the foot of the Christmas tree and is restored to health. In addition to perhaps inspiring Toy Story, this story also associates nutcrackers with Christmas for the first time.
The figures were a great success, also among Americans. It is assumed that the tradition was brought to the United States when soldiers at a nearby American base in the area began to bring the nutcrackers home for Christmas.
Käthe Wohlfahrt, the Rothenburg Christmas shop
The next stop on this tour of Europe’s Christmas markets is to visit the popular Christmas shop Käthe Wohlfahrt in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This village is considered one of the most beautiful in Germany and in 1964 Käthe and Wilhelm Wohlfahrt opened a shop there 365 days a year selling Christmas handicrafts.
A somewhat eccentric idea, but it worked, and not only that: it grew in number of locations in Bavaria and in the form of temporary Christmas chalets in the main cities of Germany. In Barcelona, by the way, they opened a popular branch in the Gòtic neighbourhood that every year accumulates long queues.
In Rothenburg, the company has two large flagship shops that have been repeated in other locations: decorating the interior of the shop as if it were a Bavarian Christmas village. Inside the main shop in Rothenburg you can find many of the handcrafted items: small wooden Christmas pyramids, characters for Christmas dioramas, nutcrackers of all colours, electric arches of lights (another symbol of light in Advent) and balls and garlands for the trees…
Their own brand Käthe Original identifies products produced by craftsmen.
Popular Christmas trees in Strasbourg and Prague
We come to the end of this journey through Europe’s Christmas markets under a Christmas tree. In particular, the one in Prague’s Old Town Square, one of the most spectacular you can see at the markets.
Once decorated, the Christmas tree in Prague’s Old Town becomes the symbol of Christmas in the city every year, and the lighting ceremony marks the start of the Christmas markets every year.
Christmas trees have their own ritual in the whole Advent culture. For example, the Great Sapin on Place Kléber in Strasbourg, 30 metres high or more, is selected every year from the forests of Alsace, Moselle and the Vosges and decorated with 7 kilometres of lights, which takes about 120 hours of work.
Similarly, in the case of the tree on the Old Town Square, it is selected each year from trees nominated by private owners in the Czech Republic. In addition to the prestige of having their tree chosen, the owners also receive a financial reward.
Did you like this journey of Europe’s Christmas markets? Leave us your questions and impressions in the comments!