Germany's cities, towns and villages take on a magical air during Advent. The traditional outdoor Weihnachtsmärkte, Christmas Markets, can be at the foot of a mountain, alongside a waterfall, in a tiny village square, the middle of a city, or on boats moored in a harbor; but are invariably in centuries old historic settings that possess a unique character throughout the year.
Nevertheless they are magically transformed by canopied wooden stalls and small wooden huts overflowing with genuine and age old crafts, an enchanted atmosphere and the aroma of toasted sugared almonds, hot chestnuts, bratwurst - grilled sausages, spicy gingerbread, cinnamon and Gluewein.
Food and drink that fits to the chill winter air and, with or without the festive markets, embody the sight, smells and tastes of Weihnachten.
Tradition and nostalgia instead of "Kitsch".
It is an ancient custom that began when seasonal markets took place throughout the year, with Dresden's "Striezelmarkt", which started in 1434, believed to have been the first Christmas Market in Germany. The name came from a creation made a few years later by the city's bakers, "Striezel", Germany's traditional Christmas Cake now known as "Christstollen", which just as hundreds of years ago is still shaped to symbolize the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Throughout the country there are 2,500 Christmas markets and, as in the past when only tradesmen from the area could sell their wares at their local market, most have remained faithful to their own individuality, regional specialties and products.
From the end of November until Christmas they are the quaint and festive gathering place for locals that they have been for centuries. Illuminated stands draped with Christmas lights, spruce and pine branches, have rows, as well as beautifully arranged displays, of everything from handmade Christmas decorations, blown glass ornaments, wooden music boxes, crib figurines, candles and plum people made with prunes and walnuts, Zwetschgenmaennla, to spicy gingerbread and other traditional seasonal goodies, while candle makers, woodcarvers, glass blowers and other artisans demonstrate their skills.
A traditional, and sometimes living, nativity scene, together with Christmas music, ringing bells, carols and choirs, can turn a walk around a Weihnachtsmärkte, or as they are sometimes named "Christkindlmärkte", into something approaching a stroll through a Christmas winter wonderland.
It was religious reformer Martin Luther who suggested presents were to be received from the Christ Child at "Christmastime", instead of delivered on December 6th by Catholic saint St. Nicholas as had been the custom until then. Subsequently especially in Southern Germany "Christkindlsmarkt", Christ Child Market, became a popular name for Christmas markets.
Often beginning around the first day of Advent and remaining until December 23 or Christmas Eve, Christmas markets open around 10 or 11 am closing between 8 or 9 pm, and day or night they embody the spirit and atmosphere of Christmas. At the same time regardless of size, their hundreds of thousands of visitors and their focus on business, they have not become "tourist traps" and there is something non-commercial about them.
In Rothenburg ob der Tauber's Reiterlesmarkt the Germanic god Wotan, who legend says rode horseback during the winter distributing gifts to the poor, hands out presents to children together with St. Nicholas. While another town along the Romantic Road, Dinkelsbuehl, is one of several that hold their Christmas market behind city gates and within heavily fortified medieval city walls.
The cobble stoned streets of Tuebingen, with its half timbered houses and streams that run through the town, has a privately run market where everything is "homemade", from baked, preserved and knitted goods to water colors, oil paintings and wood carvings.
The Christmas market in one of Europe's greatest cultural sites, Weimar, takes place where not only a lot of the world's Christmas traditions originated, including the first public Christmas tree, but where many of today's popular Christmas carols were also inspired, while in Munich a favorite market is the Kripperlmarkt. There all the stalls are filled only with nativity themed figures, made from wood, terracotta or wax, of the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Three Kings, Shepherds with flocks of sheep and other farm animals.
Village Weihnachtsmärkte illuminated by lights, candles and lanterns and with idiosyncratic stalls, offer a completely different view of German Culture.
For just one or two days during Advent the local butcher offers his Bratwurst, perhaps a local charity the Glühwein and hot chocolate, volunteers a raffle and everything from hand crafted Christmas cards, hand painted plant pot covers and door stops to Christmas ready flower bulbs, jams, jellies and fruit schnapps - a spirit, made by charities, individuals or groups is for sale.
The annual village Weihnachtsmarkt is a festive and communal meeting place where villagers and visitors meet, greet, buy and stay until deep in the night.
Visiting Christmas Markets during Advent has been a major pre-Christmas activity in Germany since the 17th century, when a Nuremberg priest was already complaining in 1616 that there was no point in holding the Christmas Eve afternoon service because "everyone was at the market", and their charm casts more people under its spell each year.
Clusters of authentic German style Weihnachtsmarkt chalets, complete with stallholders from Germany or of German descent, are opening everywhere from England's Birmingham to Chicago in the USA.
Another piece of German Christmas history and tradition has begun its long journey world wide.
Image Christmas Market in Erfurt, Thüringen via Erfurt.de, Market in Trier, Rheinland-Pfalz, by Trier Info.de