Winter evenings are long in Vienna. But at Christmastime, when the sun sets around 4 p.m., Austria's capital comes alive with lights. They twinkle on trees and illuminate carvings on medieval stone buildings. The traditional Christmas market, or Christkindlmarkt, adds more Old World sparkle to the mix.

Though we had come to Vienna to explore its many marvels during a visit that happened to fall in early December, my friend Regina and I found ourselves captivated by these festive street markets, which coincide with the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas.

We stumbled upon our first market, the Altwiener Christkindlmart, by accident. Waves of colorful wares were splayed out in open-air stalls that lined the historic promenade in the heart of old Vienna. Shoppers inspected hand-painted glass ornaments, wooden spinning tops, woven baskets and manger scenes in dozens of sizes.

We breathed in the scent of cinnamon, gingerbread and steaming mugs of glühwein (mulled wine) as we strolled the cobblestone walk. A quintet serenaded us with traditional Christmas songs, enlivened with accordion and trumpet.

It was as though we had discovered Christmas Past.

The Christkindlmarkt -- a centuries-old custom enjoyed across German-speaking Europe -- is said to have begun in Vienna in 1294 as a "December market." Austria and its largest city have other ancient ties to Christmas spirit. "Silent Night" was composed and first sung in a village church in the town of Oberndorf in 1818. Erwin Perzy, a surgical instrument maker, got the first patent for a snow globe in 1900, using rice as snow.

Sacher torte and brats delight

Everywhere Vienna's long-standing traditional of holiday cheer was evident.

At Stephansplatz, a bustling hub in December, a large evergreen donned the plaza around the towering St. Stephen's Cathedral, and holiday lights spanned the surrounding streets. After dark, beams of colored light washed across the doorway of the ornate Gothic church. Nearby, the post-modernist glass-and-steel Haas House stood in architectural contrast.

Regina and I indulged in a famous Sacher torte dessert, a chocolate confection served at the Sacher Hotel. We ogled crystal chandeliers at the multi-storied Swarovski, which was decked out in snowy Christmas themes to entice holiday crowds. We ordered up a bratwurst with mustard at an ultra-chic sausage stand in front of the opera house, where concertgoers in tuxedos and sequined dresses have been known to order up a cheese-filled käsekrainer and Champagne before a show.

One day at noon we gathered with a small group to witness the slow procession of historical figures at the Ankeruhr (Anker) Clock, an art nouveau masterpiece in Vienna's oldest square. A dozen parade across the face of the clock to organ music by Viennese composer Joseph Haydn, who is the last of the figurines.

Even as we toured our way through Vienna, we made time to explore as many of the Christkindlmarkte as we could. About two dozen Christmas markets operate across the city, with distinct personalities that range from kitschy to urbane.

Some, like the Altwiener that we had discovered our first day, were less touristy and off the beaten path of the commercial district. Others were lit up like a theme park, such as the city's largest and best-known market near the City Hall at Rathausplatz. It had 150 stands, pony rides, ice skating and a ring of trees brimming with giant ornament-shaped lights. Children could bake cookies at hands-on workshops, while their parents spent their own dough in the market outside.

The Christmas market in the plaza of the world-famous Schönbrunn matched the noble air of the sprawling baroque palace, which served as the summer home for Vienna's ruling monarchs, the Habsburgs. The tone at the market was classy and genteel, and drew vendors from Austria as well as neighboring countries. We saw stylish wool and felt hats, elaborate hand puppets, wooden bowls and rocking horses.

Mulled wine warms shoppers

While the mood and showcase items might differ at the Advent markets, some things were universal. There was always a fast-moving line in front of the punsch stand, where mugs of sweetly spiced mulled wine are sold (add a shot of schnapps for an extra fee). Each market had a distinctive mug design, also available for purchase as a souvenir.

Wood-burning barrels of roasted chestnuts and toasted almonds provided warmth as well as sustenance, and those with a sweet tooth could indulge in hot chocolate, pastries, waffles and sweet pancakes with raisins. For a quick meal, sausages, pasta dishes and sauerkraut could be found.

The locals I queried about the Christmas markets seemed to have strong opinions. They avoided certain markets for the crowds, or sought out others for their tacky trinkets. They knew where to drop serious euros on a fine work of art or other handcraft, and some people bought from specific artists year after year.

At Karlsplatz, one of my favorite Christmas markets, I visited with a gentleman who was manning the visitors booth. Günther, originally from lower Austria, was retired and had been working the market for four years. He did it mostly to help out a good friend who worked for Davina Art, the arts and crafts association that runs the market.

Only jury-approved artists can sell at Karlsplatz, and many worked the stalls while creating new items as people picked through the merchandise in search of the perfect gift.

There were llamas and sheep and demonstrations in leather-making, foraging and glass-blowing.

Although the ancient Christmas markets lend a touch of elegance and romance to holiday shopping, they don't necessarily dampen the modern-day pull to overconsume.

Even Günther couldn't resist their charm. He earned "only a little bit," working at Karlsplatz, he said, "and half of it I spend on the market."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335