Three days, four markets, and copious glühwein.
Though we lived in Germany for a while, I have only cloudy childhood memories of the Weihnachtsmarkts. There is a fuzzy recollection of masses of people, arrays of tantalising stalls and a warm mug of something my parents always drank happily. Christmas markets are held each year in cities and towns throughout the country during the four weeks of Advent. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the oldest is said to have started in the eastern German city of Dresden. Still immensely popular today, millions visit each Christmas season to experience this long-standing tradition. Three of the most essential aspects of the markets, in order of importance, are alcohol, food and Christmas paraphernalia.
The first stop on our Christmassy tour was the market in Frankfurt am Main. Greeted by a grey sky and the swirl of snowflakes, the afternoon crowd hustled along stalls filled with food, ornaments and woollen goods. One of most famous traditions at these markets is the consumption of glühwein, which is a mixture of mulled wine and brandy. During the daytime these festivals are fairly relaxed and filled with families, but the night is a different story. As it got dark, the streets became filled with youths who noisily clambered around the alcohol stalls. Jagertee, feuerzangenbowle and Baileys hot chocolates were consumed with zeal, and the small lanes became too densely packed to allow for movement.
Winding through the stalls the olfactory system is bombarded by numerous scents, each one tempting and delicious. It is impossible to visit the markets and go hungry, as food is present in abundance. In Mainz we tasted a variety of treats, the first of which was Bratwurst. Served sliced up with a tiny wooden fork, it was sprinkled with curry power and doused with ketchup. There is little better than the homely taste of meat on a bitter winter day. Next up were tiny Dutch pancakes, dusted with icing sugar and filled with a cherry. These sweet little delicacies were gobbled up quickly, and took the edge off the glühwein. The last snack was the savoury kartoffelpuffer, which was a fried potato pancake served with runny apple sauce.
In both Königstein im Taunus and Bad Homburg we found an array of fantastical Christmas ornaments, nutcrackers and raeuchermännchen. From fragile woodcrafts to hardy metalwork, every kind of conceivable Christmas-related item was there. With their o-shaped mouths and distinctive features, the raeuchermännchen were especially enticing. Known in English as ‘smokers’, these little items come in an array of forms – from Sankt Nikolaus (jolly St. Nick) to huntsmen. Standing around a foot tall, their hallowed torsos and feet come apart to allow for the placement of a pyramid of incense. Once the interior scent is lit they look as if they are smoking away.
Weihnachtsmarkts are a lovely German tradition. The combination of strong drinks, warm food and excessive shopping make for a wonderful weekend trip. If Germany seems too far there are always the festivities in Edinburgh or Belfast…
Images – Alexandra Rancourt