I know it’s a difficult time for Americans to travel – this holiday season sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas – but I would encourage a little manipulating of vacation schedules when possible to make a trip to Germany in December, at least one time in your life.
The best thing about the Christmas markets is the enchanting festive atmosphere that they evoke – it’s the stuff movies are made of. The town square becomes filled with little wooden huts, out of which vendors sell handmade gifts (candles, soap, socks, scarves, jewelry, wooden toys) and seasonal food such as roasted chestnuts, potato pancakes, sausage sandwiches, marzipan, and of course, mulled wine (Glühwein). Most markets have similar products – they’re not mass-produced, commercial goods (for the most part), but rather, handmade goods that happen to have widespread appeal.
However, I would say that the overriding appeal of a Christmas markets is actually not the shopping, but the festive atmosphere and the hangout potential. This time of year can be cold and somewhat depressing, but the markets inject joy into the streets and inspire everyone to get outside and enjoy the early days of winter. It’s a wonderful thing to be out with friends on a crisp, cold evening, wrapped in a heavy wool scarf and hat, drinking a steaming cup of Glühwein and crunching around in the snow thinking about how wonderful this time of year can be and how much love you have for the whole world, and just feeling generally joyful. Or maybe that’s just me; I can be a bit sentimental.
If you’re not the sentimental type, there’s always the Glühwein (or even better, Feuerzangenbowle: basically, Glühwein on fire). It’s amazing how after one cup you no longer notice the cold…
It should be noted that after a while one Christmas market can start to feel exactly like any other Christmas market. They all seem to sell the same stuff, they’re crowded… but you have to ignore that and just embrace the holiday atmosphere. I recommend heading straight to a Glühwein stand upon arrival. Also, there are many Christmas markets that do try to do something a little unique. For example, some of the markets have a medieval theme, complete with candlelight, appropriately-themed food and drink, and music. Other markets may be unique for their romantic location – e.g. the market in the old, walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, or the market on the Fraueninsel in the Chiemsee (an island in the middle of a lake that can only be reached by boat). There’s a market in Berlin that even has a sledding (tubing) hill built above the market stalls.
The only drawback to the Christmas markets is that it is a short-lived season that only comes around once a year. Of course, this builds a feeling of sweet anticipation, but when you actually live here the time can slip by in a blur of ordinary work and life commitments with little opportunity to actually make it to the market. But, maybe we need this as a reminder to slow down and forget about those commitments for a couple of weeks, and instead just enjoy life.