It was a search for God and a higher purpose that drew Martin Luther to the central German city of Erfurt some 500 years ago. There, he carried out his studies in the shadow of the magnificently stern Erfurt Cathedral, a towering monument of 14th-century construction that dominates the skyline.
A stirring sight all these years later, the cathedral beckoned us to the town’s central square last Christmas not for religious vows, but to take in another centuries-old feature of local German life: the Christmas market.
Nowhere else does the Christmas market — “Weihnachtsmarkt” or even “Christkindlesmarkt” for the tradition of opening the market with the welcoming of the Christ child — have such a claim to endurance as it does in Germany. By the time Luther dropped out of law school to embrace his spiritual path in the early 1500s, the Christmas markets of Germany were already a centuries-long practice. Today, they blend serious shopping for handmade crafts and artwork with a family-friendly community mixer, becoming places where you can see the neighbors, enjoy some mulled wine and maybe pick up a wooden nutcracker.
And in Erfurt, like many other German cities, the market takes place in the main public square at the center of town.
A rule of thumb for finding the market in any city is to look for the church spires near the center of town. The scent of spiced wine and some version of bratwurst cooking on a swinging grill (another German claim to fame) will guide you in for the last few steps.
How it came to be that my family was wandering the Christmas markets of Germany last year was an accident we were sort of hoping to make happen. A fall sabbatical in Berlin wrapped up in the first week of December, and it was our intention to head to Italy to spend the holidays with an old family friend. We had a week before we needed to get there, so the four of us packed into a rented sedan and headed south.
We had already been to a few markets in Berlin, and expected we’d find more as we wandered our way through the central part of the country to its southern border. It turned out to be an easy way to arrange our day. No matter where we were, we made at least one stop each day at a Christmas market — and ate, drank and shopped our way through Old World customs.
We learned that each market has its own twist on the tradition, some more churchy, some as mere entertainment, some as serious shopping destinations. (We never did get to the disco Christmas market we saw advertised in Berlin, though we made it to one at a skateboard park.)
History of the markets
So, a quick bit of history: The markets are typically scheduled during the four weeks of Advent. A December market held in Vienna popped up as early as 1300, and by 1310 Munich had what people were calling a Christmas market. A crèche that would look familiar to Christians in the U.S. usually gets prominent placement, but not every market has one. In some of the markets, a local decked out as St. Nicholas gets things underway and, in others, a local kid fills in as “Christkind,” the boy Jesus.
Further south, in alpine Bavaria, a spooky custom that never made it out of Germany has fantastically hideous beasts named Krampus wander the markets alongside St. Nicholas. The good children get gifts from St. Nicholas. The bad kids get Krampus. Looking at the horned, fang-toothed and hairy costumes some men wore to play the part of Krampus, it’s not hard to imagine that the moral lesson took firm hold in children’s minds.
By the time we finished our tour of Christmas markets, we had been seen plenty of Krampus, drunk mulled wine of many varieties, sampled delicious cured meats and cheese and seen a lifetime’s worth of wooden toys, nutcrackers, handmade crafts and artwork, knitted hats, candles and chocolates of every conceivable shape. (This might be a good place to point out that, if you so desire, you can buy a chocolate at many German Christmas markets that looks like a perfectly made crescent wrench. Actual size. It always made me wonder: Who finds it appealing to eat tools?)
We saw our first markets while still living in Berlin. Our very first was among the most widely known: the Alexanderplatz Christmas market in Berlin. This is in a touristy section of Berlin and near some train stations we frequently passed through, so the experience was more a stop we made on our way somewhere else. My older son’s 12-year-old eyes grew large at the sight of a ride that combined bungee-jumping with a trampoline, and when I spotted a beer garden nearby where I could wait while keeping an eye on him, we entered the market.
His 5-euro bounce lasted long enough for me to take in the scene: Crowds filtered through timber-framed wooden stands or sat at the beer garden with a glass stein of lager. (A note for beer drinkers: Traditional German brewing doesn’t like change and that means that the craft beer trend still hadn’t hit Berlin. Most beers at the Christmas markets and everywhere else were still lagers or Pilseners from old, well-established brewing companies.)
We didn’t stay long, but that first short visit made use of one of the best features of the German Christmas market: It’s easily flexible to your time and needs. All of them were small enough to navigate in minutes, they offer food for the hungry, gifts for the practical, and entertainment for those who want to stick around.
Range of options in Berlin
Our curiosity piqued, we looked up a list of Berlin Christmas markets to see what was available and were surprised to learn of dozens of markets, some with skating rinks, others with pop-up restaurants, and some just regular markets that turned themselves over to the season for the month. Some seemed to shoot for nostalgia while others reached for grandeur. We chose the market set in the Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful public square, and headed there.
Soon we were standing in front of the Konzerthaus Berlin with crowds of jacketed Berliners, warding off the cold amid stunning architecture. Here there were French and German churches, the Konzerthaus (concert hall) and a magnificent statue of poet Friedrich Schiller. Much of the square was badly damaged during World War II, but it’s been completely restored.
A stage set up in front of the Konzerthaus held our attention as numerous acts sang or danced, and soon we were all swaying to the most successful Christmas single in German history. That would be “Last Christmas,” by George Michael of the British pop band Wham! In the home of musical masters who have penned Christmas songs since at least the 11th century, from the earliest known song “Sei uns willkommen, Herre Christ” to relatively more recent tunes like “O Tannenbaum,” the 1984 hit from Wham! dominates the charts every year. At first we thought it was a coincidence that we were hearing the song at the Konzerthaus so soon after one of our sons had memorized the song for his school Christmas concert.
Soon we learned otherwise.
George Michael followed us throughout Germany, singing at markets large and small of his heartbreak from last Christmas, when he foolishly gave his heart to someone who threw it away. This year, he told us again and again — and once more — he planned to give it to someone special. George Michael may or may not have found lasting love before he died last year, but he sure gave the people of Germany a gift with that song.
The tune still playing in our head, we wandered into the wooden stalls of the market and found one of our best gifts. A woman demonstrated how a fleet of tin boats she had for sale, each the size of a deck of playing cards, could propel themselves around a tub of water using force generated by a candle. The candle fit inside each boat and heated water passing through a tube, some physics happened and, presto! A boat and a nifty demonstration of science and energy. We bought one for my father, a research scientist who spent the bulk of his career designing computer hard drives, and wandered some more.
The last market we saw in Berlin was my 12-year-old’s favorite. It was at Mellow Park, a large skateboard and BMX bike-riding facility near our apartment that had been a frequent hangout during our time in Berlin. The gifts were all handmade, one vendor had BMX-related items for sale, but my attention was on the entertainment.
Perched on a small stage stood a musician wearing a top hat, recording himself playing multiple instruments on his computer. As he added each one, the sound pulsed from the speakers, growing from a single flute to an orchestra of noise. This, conveniently, gave my sons more time to work over my wife with their gift requests. We left with posters, but couldn’t manage much else because our suitcases were full.
Magic in Erfurt
We left Berlin a few days later, stopping first in Erfurt, the long-ago home of Martin Luther. The Old World still stands in Erfurt, literally, in the form of the 14th-century cathedral and its neighbor the St. Severi Church. Even for a family that had seen plenty of old churches throughout Germany, we were stunned by Erfurt Cathedral. It’s home to artworks, priceless stained glass and stonework statues. Especially at night, when the spires reach high into the darkened sky above, the cathedral holds a magical quality unlike anything we had seen.
Spread below on the public square, the Domplatz, the wooden stalls of the Christmas market were crowded shoulder to shoulder with festive Germans. A local we knew through neighbors back in Minneapolis guided us to a stall selling honey-infused mulled wine, a local favorite. We rode on a two-story carousel painted with scenes from the 19th century. My younger son even dropped his customary shyness around new people to put on a Santa hat.
Warmed by the hot wine, standing in awe of the city’s history and architecture, listening to a medieval bell pealing from high up above, we felt moved by the holiday and thought even George Michael would agree.
This year, we’re going to have something special.