Why the fuss about German Christmas markets? Surely they’re just schmaltzy shanty towns, full of stuff you’d never dream of buying at any other time? This tends to be my point of view until Advent… when I yearn to be back in Germany. Its motor industry may be mired in scandal, its football team may have lost to Ireland (Ireland!) but at least Christmas is one thing my cousins still do best.
So where and when to go, and what to buy? Well, most markets run from the end of November until Christmas Eve. They’re great for handmade decorations and festive food and drink, but for Germans a weihnachtsmarkt isn’t just about shopping. It’s a place to meet up for a mug of glühwein and a bite to eat. Perhaps a regional delicacy such as kasespatzle in the south or bismarckherring in the north.
The Christmas Striezelmarkt in Dresden, the Saxon capital, is Germany’s oldest, dating back to 1434, and also one of the most picturesque. Look out for wooden toys from the Erzgebirge mountains, and what the Saxons say is Germany’s best stollen. The baroque Altstadt has been beautifully restored (you’d never know it was bombed flat in 1945) and Advent is the best time to see it, lit up with fairy lights and flecked with snow. If you’re feeling cynical about the festive season, standing in the cobbled Marktplatz as the first snowflakes fall will make you feel like a child again.
Leipzig is another East German city that’s had a remarkable renaissance since the Wall came down. It’s especially atmospheric at Advent, particularly if you’re a music lover. A Christmas concert by the St Thomas Boys’ Choir, in the church where Bach was choirmaster, is an exquisite treat. Once you’ve heard ‘Silent Night’ sung in German by these angelic boys in sailor suits, it never sounds quite as good in English.
Munich’s Christkindlmarkt is a more Catholic affair. Its Kripperlmarkt sells a vast array of ornately carved crib figures — big enough for a cathedral or small enough for your mantelpiece. Try a slice of Magenbrot, the dark Bavarian gingerbread. At the Weihnachtsmarkt in Coburg, one of the most romantic cities in Germany, you’ll find potters, weavers, glass-blowers and all sorts of old-fashioned craftsmen.
You don’t even need to go somewhere scenic to enjoy the magic. Last year, in workaday Frankfurt, I had one of the most enjoyable evenings I can recall. Like most Brits I was there on business, and Christmas was the last thing on my mind. But then I wandered through the Romerplatz just as they were putting up the tree, and by nightfall the square was full of people — eating, drinking, gossiping, in no hurry to go home.
I ended up spending the entire evening there. A German businessman I’d never met before asked me to help him get a drunk on to his homebound tram. The businessman bought him a ticket. I went along for the ride. The drunk jumped off at the first stop and disappeared into the nearest bar. Oh well, we’d tried our best, I thought, as I retraced my steps to the weihnachtsmarkt for another weisswurst, and just one more mug of glühwein.