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Tales from Christmas markets past

Aimée Smith, 17 December, 2020
In a year where Europe’s squares stand empty of their beloved Christmas markets, we take a look at some of the unique traditions and authentic products usually on display.
Christmas fairs are said to have originated in medieval Germany, but Austria also has a long history of holding a winter market, with the first Krippenmarkt recorded in Vienna in 1296. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that today’s celebrations are so rich in tradition, with carol singing, elaborate Nativity scenes, and even an appearance from Krampus – St Nicholas’ sinister companion.

Of the carols drifting between the festive market stalls, one is sure to be Stille Nacht, or Silent Night. This was composed in 1818 in the small town of Oberdorf, near Salzburg, and offered a message of peace and hope shortly after the devastating Napoleonic Wars.

In Salzburg itself, another much-loved Christmas custom is on view at the markets. Emperor Joseph II inadvertently started the tradition of the Nativity scene in 1782, when he forbade churches from setting up cribs; this prompted craftsmen to create their own – often very large and ornate – Nativity displays, and the tradition has persisted to this day.

Of course, a Christmas market wouldn’t be a Christmas market without some festive treats, and Austria has many specialities, including hot spiced punch, Zimtsterne (cinnamon star biscuits) and Linzer cookies. Why not follow the links for instructions on how to recreate these Christmas market staples at home?
You might not think of France as the home of the Christmas tree – the oldest-known reference to a decorated fir is in 1521, in the Alsatian town of Sélestat – but then this border region has also spent long periods under German rule, making it a natural festive heartland. The Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg is Europe’s oldest Christmas market, and Alsace has many traditions: from delicious baked goods such as bredele and manele (festive biscuits and little brioche men, respectively) to l’étoffe de Noël – a Christmas fabric made every year and used to decorate the buildings and Christmas markets of the city of Mulhouse.

While browsing Alsace’s magical markets, you can’t help but have your eye caught by the delicate glass baubles. This is yet another tradition to have originated in Alsace – in the Vosges Mountains in 1858 to be precise, where a glassblower hung his village tree with glass balls, as there was a shortage of the more traditional fruit decorations following a particularly bad harvest that year.
There is a saying in Denmark that Christmas is the festival of hearts, and one of the most traditional Danish tree ornaments is a pleated paper heart. The first-known example was made by renowned fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen in the 1860s, and today you will find beautiful glass versions at every Danish Christmas market.

Glass figurines of all shapes and sizes are popular in Denmark; with the markets closed this year, some of the best examples can be seen on the website of Art Glass Copenhagen: as well as the classic stockings and baubles, there is a very cute reindeer and – rather curiously – a Christmas panda!

Food is also an important part of the Danish countdown to Christmas, and as you wander around the markets, you will notice people sipping on glögg – Denmark’s answer to mulled wine – or enjoying a plate of æbleskiver, a delicious sweet snack that has been described as a cross between a pancake and a Yorkshire pudding!
Winter is embraced in Sweden, and the dark December days offset by traditions that provide warmth, light and good cheer. The most important of these is Lucia – a centuries-old candlelit procession held annually on 13 December and led by a handmaiden dressed in white and wearing a candlelit wreath on her head. The custom is said to have been inspired by the fourth-century Saint Lucia of Syracuse, who once picked her way through Rome’s catacombs to deliver food to the Christians hiding there.

If you find yourself at a Swedish Christmas market or church on 13 December, you can look forward to watching the procession up close, and to sampling a Lussekatt – a saffron bun shaped to resemble a curled-up cat, with raisins for eyes. You can find the recipe here.

One of the country’s most northerly Advent markets is held at Jokkmokk in Swedish Lapland, with stalls selling authentic Sámi handicrafts, made from natural products such as root, leather and wool. Sweden’s largest market, by contrast, takes place in Gothenburg’s Liseberg amusement park, while the Skansen open-air museum in Stockholm usually hosts a themed Christmas celebration, giving visitors a glimpse of Swedish festive traditions through the ages.
The Czech Republic
Red-roofed huts selling beautiful, handmade decorations; a towering fir tree strung with fairy lights; and lashings of cinnamon-and-citrus-scented svařák – the Advent market held annually in Prague’s Old Town is classically Christmassy. It’s also a great place to pick up some unique gifts, whoever you’re shopping for.

A popular choice for children is Krtek, The Little Mole. He was created in 1957 by Czech illustrator, Zdeněk Miller, and has starred in many cartoons since. At the market, you will find soft, wooden and metal Krtek toys, as well as edible versions! Adults might prefer a treat from Manufaktura, a company whose cosmetics draw on Czech ingredients such as Moravian wine and spring salt from the region of Karlovy Vary.
The Italians say that they have a natural advantage when it comes to Christmas markets, as their fairs combine Mediterranean flavours and Alpine traditions. This is most in evidence in northerly South Tyrol, where festive stalls fill the streets and squares of almost every town and village.

The market held in Bressanone is particularly atmospheric – the magnificent Domplatz square with its striking, double-spired cathedral provides the backdrop, and there is a historic steam carousel for young visitors to enjoy. Whichever of the region’s fairs you visit, though, you will find authentic, handcrafted products and classic South Tyrolean fare – such as Zelten, a traditional fruitcake packed with festive flavours and attractively decorated with nuts and candied cherries. If you’d like to try it for yourself, here is the recipe.

Elsewhere in Italy, Christmas markets are complemented by artisan workshops – such as on the Via S. Gregorio Armeno in Naples, where exquisite Nativity figurines are crafted and sold all year round – and by age-old customs, like the annual Glassworks Regatta on Venice’s Grand Canal, in which workers from Murano’s famous glass factories take to the waters dressed as festive characters.


Book now for winter 2021/22

If you are planning ahead for next winter, we are now taking bookings for the 2021/22 season. Although our winter snow breaks tend to be situated in quiet, little-known locations, several offer access to Europe's beautiful cities and their Christmas markets.

Snow holidays on the quiet side of the mountain >
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