Celebrating Christmas in Australia can be tricky to navigate when you’re from a European family. For me, for instance, the lead up to Christmas would traditionally include baking cookies in a wood-fired stove, in 40 degree heat in a house with no air-conditioning, while Bing Crosby dreamed of how fantastic a white Christmas would be. A snowy day – where roasting an enormous bird in the oven and gorging yourself on food actually made sense, because, what else is there to do when it’s that cold outside? Instead of embracing the climate which had been chosen for us by firing up the barbecue and slurping pineapple semi-freddo laced with vodka, we (along with so many other Aussie families) would soldier on – basting the turkey with the sweat from our brows, positioning $15 pedestal fans in every corner as the breeze fluttered holly-patterned paper napkins onto carpet already littered with dead pine needles.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother would tell us stories about Christmas growing up in Germany. These stories were the stuff of fairy-tales: it was snowing, lights glittered and there were candles on the trees; the smell of hot, nourishing food, of spicy gluhwein. And at the heart of all this were the Christkindlmarkts, the markets they set up in town squares in the evenings, where even the children were allowed to attend, rugged up from the cold night air, sipping gluhwein and choosing new sparkling Christmas ornaments. You couldn’t help but dream that one day you would be there.
A couple of years ago, we finally had the chance. It was not my first white Christmas – officially the first one was had been 10 years ago when we were working in the ski fields in the US. But that had been different – though it was beautiful, we had worked during day, there was no tree, no real celebration other than drinking one too many Smirnoff Ice. This time, we would be going to the land of the Christmas Market – and we would be there with our family. We had not planned to be there for Christmas itself, but rather the weeks leading up – it was as my mother used to say “the best time” – filled with anticipation, build-up; for when you get to the actual day, blink and it’s done.
We planned a trip where the majority of places we would stay were in Austria rather than Germany itself. I know it may be a giant surprise to some – but guess what – Christmas markets are not only found in Germany. As well as Austria, they are held all over Europe from Czechoslovakia to even Spain (although I would not recommend the Madrid Christmas Market unless you’re into cheap plastic toys and religious paraphernalia).
We were careful when it came to choosing our towns. I see multi-day group tours advertised now, taking busloads of tourists to the well-known, huge, big-name Christmas Markets – Nuremberg, Munich. But if you want to avoid the tourists, if you want to avoid the crowds, I’d strongly recommend avoiding the larger cities, and having a peek at some of the smaller towns and villages with their cosy neighbourhood versions. As much as Christmas Markets aren’t specific to Germany, nor are they only confined or special to the large cities. The best Christmas markets are those smaller gems that you will only find if you’re prepared to explore.
The thing about the smaller markets is that they have a smaller, community-feel magic to them. You can go there pretending that you live just round the corner and are stopping by for a hot gluhwein after work. Sure, there aren’t as many stalls – but haven’t you noticed that at bigger places with thousands of stalls, they all inevitably end up smelling the same shit anyway? I mean, just how many gingerbread/bratwurst/wool mitten options do you need? The point of the Christmas Markets, is to be able to have a little browse around, see what trinkets are on offer, pick your food (bratwurst, potato soup or perhaps a dessert?) fill a mug of gluhwein and find a spot to lean – preferably in the vicinity of one of those large gas heaters. It goes without saying, but the smaller markets are friendlier, the vibe is more relaxed, and the food is generally better (dare I say, homemade?).
We visited a number of smaller Christmas Markets in Germany and Austria. We did explore the market in Munich at the start of the trip and found it to be, grand, noisy, and crowded – so much so that it was almost impossible to wander, let alone find a quiet place to absorb the atmosphere amongst the drunk people wearing reindeer headbands for their office Christmas parties. Of course, if your goal is to experience a busy, upbeat market where you will have to jostle just to get yourself a mug of gluhwein and are ready to compare the price of that glowing bauble which is sold from five different stalls, the city markets might well be for you. In case you haven’t got the point by now – it wasn’t for me. (Out of all the larger markets, why not try Prague? Beautiful, sparkly, atmospheric but not yet overrun by tour buses, it’s not a bad compromise).
There is however a downside to the smaller markets – and this is their schedule which is often a lot more restricted than cities. In smaller towns, you may find that the markets are only held on the weekends in December and only in the evenings. So check before you go – information is normally online – and opening hours do vary from town to town. Some are open all day so you can pick up some steaming hot soup for lunch. Some are on at certain evenings during the week. It just depends.
If you’re planning on going in the evening (and why wouldn’t you, this is the best time to go!) remember, it’s winter in Europe. Therefore, it’s fricken freezing. For those who are used to snowy winters this will be a no-brainer. For those more temperate types, pack your beanie. And your gloves. And probably thermals. If you think you’ll be able to warm yourself up drinking gluhwein, just remember it has its limits. For me, it was all I could do not to drink my mug of delicious hot wine in two gulps. The freezing air cools the liquid much more quickly than the ideal. Ten minutes your mug’s empty and you’re ready for the next one!
And speaking of gluhwein, be ready to sample all different kinds of recipes. Different markets, different stalls have different flavours and some are better than others. For those who are not really into red wine, some even do white gluhwein these days. When purchasing your gluhwein, it generally works like this: for the first mug you pay a surcharge to cover the mug itself. Once you already have the mug, each gluhwein you purchase after that is at a reduced price – you’re now paying for just the top-up. And when you’re done you have the option of either taking the mug with you as a Christmassy souvenir or bringing it back to the gluhwein stall and receiving your ~2 Euro refund.
If you’re lucky, you may even be treated to a parade of the creepiest Christmas character there is: the Krampus. The subject of a disappointingly terrible movie a few years back, the Krampus is a scary goat-like character with hooves, chains and bells apparently designed to scare the shit out of children around Christmastime. As they parade around the markets, the characters wear masks, rattle chains and are actually pretty freaky – remember, its dark, cold and you’ve had a few gluhweins – they are no Santa Claus!
If you’re keen to check-out some of the smaller Christmas Markets why not try the following:
- Berchtesgaden (Germany)
- Kufstein (Austria)
- Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany)
- St. Wolfgang (Austria)
- Seefeld (Austria)
Remember – these markets are small – some may only have a handful of stalls and you may therefore find them boring. So think about what kind of experience you are really going for and keep an open mind. Even if you decide the bigger versions are more your scene – a teeny market is still worth a look if only for the contrast.
- Don’t bother eating before you go – there’s plenty of food options available at the market!
- For smaller towns, check the opening hours/dates to avoid disappointment.
- Not all gluhweins are created equal.
- Standing in the street in negative temperatures is cold. Scarves, beanies, mittens are mandatory.
- Did I mention the smaller markets are better?