Okay folks, I’m pretty sure I’ve found it….that’s right, the country that looks Christmas in the eye, says, “We know what to do with you” and then kicks some serious Christmas butt. I’d heard a thing or two about German Christmas markets, in fact I even spent one Christmas in Germany way back in 1999, but for some reason I was entirely unprepared for it this year and how I would become so completely and utterly smitten. I went to my first market in Hamburg on the first day it opened and was in complete awe—not only do I love markets in general, but here we are with markets around every corner, selling all sorts of heavenly food and drinks, fun crafts, and beautiful ornaments, and best of all, it is THE place to be in December. Clear your calendars for the next month because this is all you will be doing. Okay, maybe it’s all I’ve been doing anyways! I feel like all of the coldness of German culture and especially of Northern Europe melts away for this month and friends and family and co-workers and random strangers gather at the markets, filled with friendliness-enducing Glühwein, to just…..be together.
Here are some of my absolute favorite things so far (and believe me, I’ve tried a lot of things in a short time!)
The plethora of hot drinks. Alright, so the drink everyone hears about is Glühwein of course, but there are so many more drinks to choose from: Eierlikör punsch (kind of like alcoholic eggnog but thinner), red AND white Glühwein (and then such varieties as adding rum and other such concoctions), Bailey’s and hot chocolate (one of my personal favorites), Glühbier if you can believe it (I have yet to try it…not so sure about hot, spiced beer), and of course a wide variety of other hard liquors mixed with hot chocolate and various other punches, alcoholic and non-alcoholic. And the fun part—collecting the mugs! Every stand has a different mug which you pay a small pfand (deposit) for and at the end it’s up to you if you keep it or not. It’s becoming a bit of a treasure hunt now to find the best ones!
The food. Perhaps all I should say for this one is—drool, because that’s literally what I do as I walk around the markets, particularly the biggest and most beautiful, if crowded, one (in my opinion), Hamburger Weihnachtsmarkt in front of Hamburg’s town hall. There is of course the traditional wurst (sausage), coming in various varieties, potatoes in a lot of forms including my new favorite—kartoffelpuffers (kind of like big hashbrowns that you put sugar and apple sauce on), pfaffenglück (seriously amazing as you’ll see from the photo below), fresh crepes (the Nutella ones are my new addiction, not surprisingly), roasted nuts with all kinds of seasonings (beware the chili ones which are wonderfully and ridiculously spicy), schmalzkuchen (like mini donuts from your local fair), fischbrötchen (a fish sandwich which is perhaps only seen at Hamburg markets), and of course chocolates and all sorts of other goodies. This list is making me hungry. Good thing you can’t see the drool.
The atmosphere. I have to say, this is probably the best part. When I say this is the place to be, I really mean it. On the day the markets opened I had about five or six messages from friends asking where and when I wanted to meet up and at which market. Living in a big city like Hamburg is so great for this time of year because you have about a hundred markets to choose from, or so it feels, and all you have to do is walk about 10-15 minutes and you’re at the next market. So, you meet up with your friends, grab your first round of hot drinks, meander through the stalls, end up at another market, maybe meet some more friends, get a second round of drinks…and the merriness continues. Most markets do close at around 9 pm at the latest though, except on the weekends or certain markets like Hamburg’s Santa Pauli erotic Christmas market—you so need to go there early. What has been so refreshing for me about the markets is the pure social nature of it and the warmth. Germany (the north in particular) is not usually very warm, socially and weather-wise, and it can be very hard to feel a part of the German community, but the wonderful thing about the markets is that locals, tourists, expats, Germans alike all gather and enjoy the moment together. Maybe it’s cheesy, but I love it.
The lights. This is a dark, dark time of year, especially in Norther Europe and so when suddenly the dark days of November (the markets opened on November 26th this year) were brightened by huge light-covered Christmas trees, glowing stars, lights lining the main parts of the streets and of course the warm glow coming from each booth as well as some fires, it is almost like escaping the winter blues. Maybe this is why the tradition of the markets started in the first place, but all I know is, I feel the glow.
Along with my favourites comes a few tips to make your experience the best it can be if you are just visiting or experiencing German Christmas for the first time:
Drink your Glühwein (and other hot drinks) quickly! I have learned the hard way a few times that if you don’t drink Glühwein quickly it starts to taste like medicine at the end in those last few, luke-warm sips. You see people just downing theirs and now I understand why.
Expect high prices and bring cash! If you want to get a few great items for family and friends back home, then you will definitely find some unique items at the markets, but shop around, and don’t expect anything to be cheap. Also, Germany is very much a cash oriented country, so don’t expect debit machines of any kind at the stalls—come loaded with Euros!
Definitely go to a market when it snows. Alright, so maybe you can’t order snow, but the last few days in Hamburg have been a snowy Christmas dream, making the markets even more magical. I mean seriously, how much more Christmasy can it get?
Get your elbows ready. Although the markets have a warm and friendly atmosphere, you will still need to employ your best crowd maneuvering tactics as line ups to Glühwein huts can become a bit ridiculous at some of the main markets, and trying to either get your drinks or bring your mug back can take over thiry minutes sometimes if you don’t use a little force. It’s Christmas, I know, and maybe you are polite and Canadian, but Germans are not really into line ups, so just get in there and get your Glühwein—everyone else will be doing it too!
Be open to wonder. Yes, this may be my cheesiest one yet, but I seriously am like a little child in these markets. I think it’s so utterly wonderful and some of my friends have teased me for how obsessed with the markets I am, but I don’t care because they are one of the best things I’ve experienced yet in Germany and I intend to enjoy it to the max. I’ve laughed with a few other expats that the Christmas markets are like our reward for the difficult things we put up with throughout the year. So, let the light, warmth and wonder of the German Christmas markets bring out the child in you—a child who can drink rum and Glühwein, of course.
Merry Christmas from the land of Christmas! Fröhe Weihnachten! If you haven’t experienced a German Christmas market yet, go to your local one if it exists (I’ve been a couple of times to the lovely little Vancouver German Christmas market), and then add a visit to Germany in December to your bucket list – it will be worth every penny. I’ve only experienced the Hamburg Christmas markets so far, but I’m sure they are fabulous all around the country. And then, let me know what you think of pfaffenglück.
This blog was originally posted here. Check it out for more photos of Kristi’s Christmas Market adventures.