Traveling Through History by Christmas Market

Traveling Through History by Christmas Market

This weekend, themed markets and historic cities took Christmas Market nostalgia to a whole new level.

We began in the Middle Ages yesterday, arriving at nearby Bingen’s medieval-themed Christmas Market. Here costumed artisans and merchants toiled beneath the impressive Burg Klopp, once a medieval toll castle and now a city administration building.

Meat on sticks, spit-roasted pig, and Glühwein in clay vessels accompanied the standard festival food fare. Arts and crafts included hand-dyed yarn, hand-smithed metalwork, wooden swords, leather accessories and furs.

A band of minstrels paraded through the streets with an assortment of pipes and drums. My favorite was the hobo-esque guy with a tattered hat who accompanied them wielding some kind of artsy ball.

Reichsburg Cochem towering over town of Cochem
Mosel River from the castle

Traveling back further this morning, we found ourselves in the midst of the first Christmas in Bethlehem – told at my favorite castle Reichsburg Cochem along the Mosel River. Whether intended as social commentary or not, a census official reminded Mary and Joseph, in their haste to register before the imminent birth, that “Order takes time.”

Shepherds heeded the Archangel Gabriel who pointed to a bright star (and lo, there it was!) for us all to follow. The angel’s work post was prepared behind the scenes for the day with a thermos of coffee or Glühwein. The children in the group were asked to think of a carol for all to sing to the angel (they chose “O Tannenbaum”) and could even ask for a wish. They were too shy today, but our shepherd guide told us once a child had asked to finally have a baby sister!

From here we encountered the Three Wise Men, who were also following the same bright star. After presenting their gifts to the Christ Child in the manger, they handed out chocolate gold pieces to children and adults alike.

The story ended on a somber and poignant note, reminding us that many children are still born in dire need. Visitors were asked to think of families in and from Aleppo, Syria and also given the opportunity to donate to a local children’s hospital before being ushered into the castle’s merry courtyard Christmas Market.

Porta Nigra in Trier
Porta Nigra in Trier

Finally, we ventured even further into the past to Trier, arguably the oldest city in Germany. Its incredibly well-preserved gate Porta Nigra stands as a reminder to the city’s days of Roman control –after it was taken over from the Celts – not long before the birth of Christ. Presently the gate ushers visitors into Trier’s charming and crowded traditional German Christmas Market.

Happy 3rd Sunday of Advent from the past!


A Toast to Christmas Market Drinks

Christmas Market in Basel

It’s that most wonderful time of year again in Germany: Christmas Market season! Bands of friends and family meet day and night this month to stroll through stands of handmade crafts, tasty street food, and, of course, warm seasonal drinks served in decorative ceramic mugs. As the drinks go hand in hand with the warm sense of holiday cheer, this week I break down some typical favorites and a few other interesting ones I’ve encountered at the Christmas Markets.


Glühwein is your standard Christmas Market drink. Hot mulled wine is a good choice to warm up from the inside out on any market visit. Traditionally Glühwein is made with red wine, but variations with white wine or even rosé can also be found. It suits any afternoon or evening that requires a hat and gloves, and goes particularly well with Currywurst and fries or a gingerbread dessert.

Drink menu at Mainz Christmas Market

Eisbrecher, or ice breaker, kicks Glühwein up a notch with a shot of rum. Try this when you’re out late on a Friday or Saturday night looking to chat up other fest-goers and/or unselfconsciously practice your German. Many variations exist with shots of all different kinds of alcohol (mit Schuβ = with shot).


Feuerzangenbowle is a rum punch with fruit and wine simmered in a copper cauldron, usually with a rum-soaked sugar cone lit on fire dripping over it. This drink is perfect for especially cold evenings while browsing the stands or chatting with friends after dinner.

Drink stand

Lumumba, hot cocoa with a shot of rum, brings an adult twist to a childhood favorite. It can be served with whipped cream for an added touch of nostalgia. Try this when you need some extra encouragement to ice skate or are simply looking for a substitute for Glühwein. Similar variations substitute a shot of amaretto or Bailey’s or add a sprinkle of cinnamon.


Bombardino is a concoction of eggnog and whiskey topped with whipped cream that I found newly added to this year’s market in Basel, Switzerland. It’s a good way to kick off the weekend or celebrate a special occasion.

Heisse Frosch

Heisse Frosch, or hot frog, is another new creation of the Basel Christmas Market combining green vodka with peppermint tea. I couldn’t bring myself to try this weird mix, but would suggest that you make this your last drink of the night if it sounds appealing to you.

Prost & Frohes Fest!

What are your favorite (or most unusual) Christmas Market drinks?

Twelve Days of Christmas Markets

Christmas pyramid with the Weihnachtsmann
Christmas pyramid with the Weihnachtsmann in Munich
Christmas Market in Prague
Christmas Market in Prague

Days have been short and cold in Germany, but fortunately the tradition of Christmas markets seems to have everything you need to warm the body and soul: fried foods, hot mulled wine, and camaraderie. Over the past month, we’ve visited markets in Mainz, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, Rüdesheim, Köln, Würzburg, Munich, Nürnberg, and Bamberg. Not far beyond the borders of Germany we also visited Strasbourg, France; Prague, Czech Republic; and Valkenburg, Holland. While the markets are similar, they’re great fun to visit again and again. Here are a few of my favorite things from the Weihnachtsmärkte (sing to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”):

On the twelfth day of Christmas, the markets gave to me…

12 Chestnuts roasting

As if out of the Christmas song itself, you can smell Heiβe Maronen even before you see them. In my opinion, this is the best part. The chewy texture mixed with a smoky, meaty taste is a little too strange for me.

Roasted chestnuts
Roasted chestnuts

11 Skaters skating

Mainz, Munich, Köln, and a few other markets have small ice skating rinks and skate rentals available. Köln even has additional curling lanes.

10 Bratwursts grilling

While Bratwursts are a staple at any festival, there are many other choices from the grill or oven: steaks, mushrooms, Spätzle (noodles), and Flammkuchen (pizza-like flatbread).

Bratwursts on the grill
Bratwursts on the grill

9 Toys a-clacking

Traditional toys and other crafts at the Christmas Markets are hand-carved works of art. In addition to wooden toys, you can find blown glass ornaments, beeswax candles, and knit sweaters and hats.

Wooden toys and decorations stand
Wooden toys and decorations stand

8 Kartoffeln puffing

Kartoffelpuffer, also known as Reibekuchen = potato pancakes. This is my favorite Christmas Market food made in the greasy deep fryer and served with applesauce.

Potato pancake stand
Potato pancake stand

7 Hearts a-baking

The smell of Lebkuchen (gingerbread) hearts mixes with the equally sweet candied nuts that they usually share a stand with. The hearts are frosted with “Ich liebe dich” (“I love you”) and sappier messages, or holiday greetings.

Lebkuchen hearts and other treats
Lebkuchen hearts and other treats

6 Krampuses prowling

In Munich and Prague, we encountered this Santa Claus counterpart who is a tradition in parts of Bavaria, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Krampus travels with St. Nick and takes the bad children away in a sack (or at least scares the hell out of them).

Krampus Run in Munich
Krampus Run in Munich


Glühwein (hot mulled wine) is undoubtedly the highlight of the Christmas Markets. Each market or, in some cases, each area or stand in the market has its own mug that you pay a deposit for. And you don’t have to buy wine to get a mug. You can also order a hot chocolate, coffee, or rum punch in a festive mug.

Goblet from the Munich medieval market, 25th anniversary of Germany unity mug from Frankfurt, boot from the Munich Chriskindl market, light blue mug from Rüdesheim, and gnome mug from Köln
Goblet from the Munich medieval market, 25th anniversary of Germany unity mug from Frankfurt, boot from the Munich Chriskindl market, light blue mug from Rüdesheim, and gnome mug from Köln

4 Chocolate fruits

Apples, bananas, pineapple, grapes… if it’s a fruit, you can buy it covered in chocolate. Usually the fruit is sold in kebab form for easy festival eating, but sometimes it’s arranged in the shape of an animal.

Chocolate covered fruits on a stick
Chocolate covered fruits on a stick

3 French crêpes

Crêpes are usually served with your choice of Nutella, chocolate, or cinnamon and sugar. This year we also discovered Baumstriezel, which are rings of fried dough also available with these toppings.

A fresh crêpe
A fresh crêpe

2 Christmas caves

In addition to a regular Christmas Market, Valkenburg in Holland has two other markets in caves. Besides a slightly muggy atmosphere and a more commercial feel to many of the stands, this was amazing to experience.

Christmas Market in a cave
Christmas Market in a cave

And mistletoe straight from a tree

‘Tis the season for mistletoe to grow like floating orbs in nearly every tree you pass here, and to be found for sale in every market. While mistletoe has a romantic use at Christmas time, it’s actually a parasitic plant that attaches to its host tree. Think about that next you kiss someone under the mistletoe.



Frohes Fest aus dem Weihnachtsmarkt!/Happy Holidays from the Christmas Market!

Christmas Season Countdown

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith the Christmas season drawing to a close, James and I made the most of the last few pre-Christmas days and visited two new markets.  Yesterday we drove about an hour southeast from our new apartment to the university town of Heidelberg.  The Altstadt (old town) of Heidelberg is paved with cobblestones and nestles between the Neckar River and the mountaintop castle Schloss Heidelberg.  The market itself is actually made up of small market areas located in several close but disconnected town squares.  Unique to this market is an ice skating rink that lies in the shadow of Schloss Heidelberg.  And yes, we happened to park behind Santa Claus.IMG_1642IMG_1645IMG_1648

Today we stopped in Hildesheim, about three hours north of us, a halfway point on our way to visit relatives near Hamburg for Christmas.  Hildesheim’s market is small and pleasantly not as crowded as the other markets we’ve visited.  We tried a local food for dinner called Hildesheimer Rahmfladen.  This is a dark flour-dusted bread topped with a soft cheese and thick crumbles of bacon, baked in an oven, and sprinkled with sliced green onions just before serving.  It was delicious, especially paired with hot chocolate and Amaretto.  I’ve been thinking about what the rest of winter in Germany will be like after the Christmas season… Cold and dark (the sun sets a little after 4 p.m. now) without Christmas markets?!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tis the Season… for Christmas Markets!

IMG_1628Germany celebrates the Christmas season with an appealing sense of old world charm.  Towns all over the country open their own individual Christmas markets in the shadow of their central churches for about a month leading up to Christmas.  In Mainz, the Christmas market has been open since November 28 (coincidentally the same day as the American Thanksgiving holiday and this year’s first night of Hanukkah).  Wiesbaden’s market opened a few days earlier.  Slightly different in their layout, the Mainz market flows through a few connected town squares while Wiesbaden’s market has a narrower and more roundabout route confined by a maze of metal gates.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite their differences, it’s what in the markets that count:  The butcher, the baker, the beeswax candlestick maker, and more.  Large wooden shed-like buildings offer handcrafted woodwork, glasswork, leather goods, Christmas ornaments, bake ware, and so on.  And the food.  As you walk through the market you pass through smells of gingerbread, chocolate, candied nuts, roasted chestnuts, bratwurst and currywurst, potato pancakes, and (perhaps most importantly) a hot mulled wine called Glühwein.  Huge wooden barrels with long benches and a table inside serve as seating for at least nine, in my experience.  You can also stand at a tall table made from a log cut in half.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On weekends in particular, the markets are jam packed.  People shuffle along shoulder to shoulder and cram in to buy crafts and food.  My favorite times to visit the markets are weekday afternoons and evenings when the crowds are a little lighter.  Time is running out for the markets but I hope to visit a few more before next week.  Merry Christmas/Frohe Weihnachten!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA      IMG_1629 IMG_1631 IMG_1632 IMG_1599 IMG_1606