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.
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.
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!
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.