The History of German Christmas Markets- A German Holiday Tradition


Every year Christmas Markets pop up around Germany in the beginning of the Advent Season, signaling the approach of the Christmas Holidays. Christmas Markets began centuries ago, when regular markets were extended a few extra days to make the cold season a little more cheerful for the chilly Villagers. Goods were probably laid out on the streets or on simple trestle tables instead of in booths as they are today.

In the Late Middle Ages these “winter markets” took place over a few days as a chance for people to come together, buy food and handicrafts, and especially, stock up for the long cold winter. Even though the markets weren’t specifically “Christmas Markets”, people would purchase wood carvings, toys, and special seasonal baked goods and meats.

The History of German Christmas Markets

Pinpointing the date of the first German Christmas Market is tricky. Vienna, Austria first held a “December Market” in 1298, and the idea may have spread north from there. Different sources give early dates, like Munich in 1310, Bautzen in 1384 and Frankfurt in 1393. But some may not have been “Christmas Markets”, but just an extra Market Day in December.

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Why are Some German Christmas Markets called Christkindlmarkt?

Christmas Markets became more popular when Martin Luther started new customs for the Christmas Season. Before the 1530s, gifts were exchanged on December 6th, the Saint Day for St. Nicholas, or on St. Martins day, November 11. (I still remember getting treats in my shoes on December 6th.) In 1531, Martin Luther wanted to take the focus away from the Saints. Instead of gifts from St Nicholas, his children got their gifts on December 24th, from the Christkindl or Christ Child. As this practice spread, many of the Christmas markets began calling themselves Christkindlmarkts (Christ Child Markets).

Germany’s oldest official Christmas market was  in Dresden. Frederick II, Elector of Saxony allowed the “Striezelmarkt,” Dresden’s market, to hold an extra Market day in 1434. But it wasn’t really just a Christmas market. Since the Striezelmarkt was a meat market, the people of Dresden were able to buy grilled meats fro their Christmas dinner, to end their Advent fast.

Today some Markets are still watched over by a Christkind… This beautiful Angel oversees and is the emissary for the Market. And you will often see St. Nikolaus greeting children and other visitors.

Christkindlesmarkt prolog 2009

Roland Berger, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas Consumerism isn’t New

Christmas shopping was a hugely popular activity even in the 17th century (so we can’t blame all of the commercialism on the big box stores of today). People have been complaining about the commercialism since then. The Markets were usually held near the cities main churches, since that was a prime spot to catch the eye of church goers. But the Markets were much more enticing than Church services! In fact, they were so much more interesting that in 1616 in Nurnberg, the priest complained that no one came to the afternoon service on Christmas Eve… they were all out shopping instead!

Christmas Markets in different cities and regions have their own specialties… in both food and traditional products. It used to be that crafts people and trades people were only allowed to sell their goods in their own towns… this kept each region distinct. The Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) was well known for its wood carvings and Christmas Pyramids, Lubeck for its Marzipan, and Nuremberg for Lebkuchen.

history of german christmas markets


German Christmas Markets Today

In modern times, the Christmas Markets hold much of the flavor of the past. People see it as a wonderful meeting place full of light and regional specialties made for the season. The handmade Christmas Ornaments and Decorations, the baked goods and other culinary treats are a lot like they were in the past. Wooden Nutcrackers, Christmas Pyramids, small wooden figurines of Angels animals and elves, Straw Stars, Cookie Tins, Glass ornaments, wooden toys, tree ornaments made of tin or glass, mugs, glassware, plates, and Smokers (wooden figurines that “smoke” incense) can be found today, just like 200 years ago.

history of german christmas markets

Can’t Make it to Germany?

Visit one of the many German Style Christmas Markets in the USA or Canada (see the list here)

Check out our Online Christmas Market 

Virtual Christmas Market

history of german christmas markets

9 thoughts on “The History of German Christmas Markets- A German Holiday Tradition

  1. Enjoyed the Christmas market video! It’s lovely that the old-fashioned ambience has been retained, along with more modern inclusions. Though I’m an American of Irish Catholic heritage, we’d always celebrated the holiday on Chistmas Eve with a stop at an Italian & Irish-American family house party hosted by very dear neighbor friends early in the evening, and had spent the remainder of the night with a Swedish & French-American Lutheran family, opening some presents early on Christmas Eve as had been their custom, and returning with them to their home for a large buffet dinner with their family and other close friends after midnight mass, at either the Catholic Church across the street from their house, or at their Lutheran church just a short drive from there. Our Lutheran friends’ open-house party would continue to dawn, with people arriving and leaving, but we’d usually return home by 3am so my parents could get a few hours of sleep before needing to start a huge dinner for an extended family gathering on Christmas Day and to collect my grandmother, who had somewhat presided over our family gatherings, which some friends and neighbors had attended also, or had just dropped by as their holiday schedules had permitted. The holidays were simply amazing with such delectables as authentic old-world lasagna, lobster newburg, shrimp cocktails, Swedish meatballs, French pastries, pumpkin pie, chocolate cream pie, Apple pie, baked hams, and roasted turkeys. Of course, we also all engaged in the German tradition of having Christmas trees as center pieces of our holiday celebrations, too. The German Christmas market above seems to embody all the magical aura of a lovely childhood Christmas still, and had reminded me of those times!

    1. PS: come to think of it, there were also Hummels present at all those holiday gatherings, also! A number of the big ones, and even more of the miniature ones.

  2. Please amend this post. Michigan is not even listed under states Christmas markets but our cities are listed under Maryland! 🙁

  3. One of my favorite Christmas markets was one that sold only items made of chocolate in Tubingen. Amazing artistry! And needless to say, delicious. The other favorites were Stuttgart and the medieval one in Esslingen.

  4. I love your website. I am writing a book about my German mother-in-laws teenage years in nazi Germany. I would like to use your Christmas market image in my book with your permisson. Do you have a rererence for the painting?
    Thank you.

    1. I’m fairly certain I bought the right to use it from Deposit photos.

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