Make the Season Bright

Europe’s festive Christmas markets

Susan James Created: December 19, 2012 Last Updated: December 19, 2012
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A shop owner organizes his Gingerbread treats at his booth in Baden Baden, Germany. (Susan George)

A shop owner organizes his Gingerbread treats at his booth in Baden Baden, Germany. (Susan George)

Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!” reads a banner near a children’s carousal full of wide-eyed kids in hats and mittens bobbing up and down. Beside it stands a festively decorated booth selling huge gingerbread hearts decorated with icing and wrapped in coloured cellophane. 

A sausage seller waves at me from behind a sizzling grill of browning meat as I try to stay upright on the frozen cobblestones, while on the small ice rink nearby two Japanese tourists are laughing helplessly, balancing on their skates. This is Stuttgart, Germany, where soft snow is falling and Christmas is coming. All over Europe, Christmas markets are open for business.

These seasonal outdoor markets are one the most festive traditions in Germany, France, and Switzerland. Beneath the spires of Gothic cathedrals and over the cobblestones of ancient narrow streets, shoppers cluster to browse and buy while Christmas music drifts out of candle-lit churches. Cinnamon wafts from kettles of hot mulled gluehwein, and coloured lights are strung from every possible eave and tree. Packed crowds flow past decorated wooden chalets offering a cornucopia of freshly cooked food and handcrafted products. 

Cities compete for the honour of the most or the best or the oldest, and vendors decorate their booths with elaborate flourishes. Dating back to the Middle Ages, Christkindl markets, or Marches de Noel in France, fill the squares of nearly every town during the four weeks preceding Christmas. But which country to choose – Germany, France, or Switzerland? 

Travelling by Rail Europe it so easy you could visit all three. Towns are close and railway stations are usually found in the heart of the city with an easy walk to and from most markets. Visiting three countries and seven markets, I start in Stuttgart and from here it is a short train ride to the spa town of Baden-Baden.

Sophiastrasse decorated for Christmas in Baden Baden. (Susan James)

Sophiastrasse decorated for Christmas in Baden Baden. (Susan James)

Baden-Baden, Germany
Once the playground of the rich with its world-famous hot spring baths and notorious casino, the Christmas stalls of Baden-Baden are literally a gourmet’s delight. Besides the usual wurst and gluehwein (made with red wine and spices), decorated booths stand in rows offering huge rounds of French nougat, chicken shashlik, sautéed wild mushrooms with spaetzle, chocolate, cheese raclette, and Swedish meatballs. Candles flicker on red tablecloths where visitors eat, drink, and talk. 

There is an international flavour, too, as a goldsmith selling replicas of pre-Columbian jewellery mourns with me about the loss of Indian treasures melted down to fill the holds of the Renaissance treasure ships of Spain. All around the market, stained glass windows made of coloured cellophane by local school children glow like jewels in the darkness. “I like this town,” an American voice exclaims behind me, summing up my exact thoughts.

Freiburg, Germany
From Baden-Baden it is a 30-minute train ride to the ancient town of Freiburg, where among its Christmas markets is an impromptu music festival. A Spanish Roma family gather a crowd on Schusterstrasse while four schoolgirls play medieval music on wooden recorders. Around the corner in the shadow of the great 13th century minster, a Russian baritone sings Italian opera with the aid of a French accordion. 

As I listen to the concert, I wander among the stalls, sampling slices of fruit bread, nougat, pieces of chocolate and roasted chestnuts, and inhale the seductive aroma of freshly baked coconut macaroons. The Russian baritone bows as I slip a euro in his cap. Freiburg sits on the Franco-German border, and just an hour’s train ride from here is the splendid city of Strasbourg. 

A candle booth in the Christmas Market in Strasbourg, Germany. (Susan James)

A candle booth in the Christmas Market in Strasbourg, Germany. (Susan James)

Strasbourg, France
Politically French, culturally German, and uniquely Alsatian, Strasbourg takes Christmas very, very seriously. Eleven different markets are connected by streets so thick with lights and decorations that Disney would be jealous. One street covered with arches of red lights like Chinatown on holiday leads to another strung in blue. 

Above the street on the Rue des Hallebardes hangs an unlikely succession of Baccarat crystal chandeliers glowing softly while stuffed toy storks, the emblem of the city, nest in artificial installations on rooftops. Over all of it soars the rose sandstone glory of the medieval cathedral.

As I walk though illuminated alleyways, a five-storey house appears with toy polar bears bulging out of all its windows, apparently hanging Christmas wreaths. A local woman standing next to me nods and says dryly, “It is a little pretentious, but it works.”

Obernai, France
Obernai, a 30-minute train ride from Strasbourg, is heavy with snowfall and even the chestnut seller inside his booth built like a train engine seeks shelter. The church, which is heated, is full of shivering tourists walking and dripping on the floor as they try to look profoundly interested in a collection of Portuguese nativity scenes. The locals regard the invaders with disapproval. 

Up the snow-shrouded street from the market are the tasting rooms of the Robert Blanck Winery. These are guarded by the winery mascot: a Labrador retriever with a ball in his mouth. Deciding to wait out the storm in the warmth of the tasting rooms, I edge past the dog. A man shovelling snow, who turns out to be Robert Blanck himself, said, “His name is Alto, like the voice. It is a dangerous voice.” The dangerous dog nuzzles my hand and drops his battered ball at my feet.

Kids wait to dip candles at a booth in Freiburg, Germany. (Susan James)

Kids wait to dip candles at a booth in Freiburg, Germany. (Susan James)

Obernai minus the snowstorm is a charming French town with both indoor and outdoor markets. Besides the tasting rooms, bakeries are a good place to watch snowflakes fall from a comfortable vantage point. Here I study the myriad varieties of Christmas cookies or braedel that the French and Germans have created over the centuries. The most traditional shapes display a red jam heart that in pre-Christian times represented the sun and celebrated the winter solstice. After a cup of hot chocolate and a handful of braedel, I am ready to face the storm.

From Obernai, it is a 90-minute train ride to Colmar, which boasts five Christmas markets on five of its historic squares. Unlike so much of the area, Colmar is untouched by World War II and is a “Hansel and Gretel” style town with a spectacular collection of half-timbered medieval buildings. 

Everywhere are impromptu weinstubs and mini-restaurants built just for the season that crowd the few empty spaces between Colmar’s canals and its Christmas stalls. Here the bakeries are full of mennele: brioche in the shape of St Nicholas, traditionally eaten on December 6th, St Nicholas Day. 

A local guide named Stefan explains the symbolism of the mennele and of the omnipresent pretzel that is used as an emblem to mark buildings and civic seals. The shape of the pretzel was a Celtic symbol for the sun displayed as an act of sympathetic magic to call it back into the sky at the winter solstice. The Christian church took the pretzel over and turned it into a symbol of the Trinity. Everywhere in Colmar, piles of golden pretzels celebrate the season and the hope that the returning sun represents.

Basel, Switzerland
I end my Christmas market tour extravaganza in Basel, Switzerland, where cascades of lights hang around Basel’s two marketplaces and decorate the facades of its main buildings. Large white stars of light shine down on shoppers who are focused on Christmas, but on the banks of the Rhine in the heart of the city, snow lies deep and skiers looking forward to the New Year are already on the trains heading for the slopes.

Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the UK, and Hawaii; and writes about travel, art, and culture.

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