I won’t lie, winter in Central Europe is not fun. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s depressing. The sun sets in the afternoon and most daytime is spent inside with the lights on. It usually only starts snowing when Christmas is over and when everybody is ready for spring. (The heaviest snow storms I experienced actually happened in April!) And no, it’s not romantic and cozy to freeze in the dark. The longer winter lasts, the crankier people around you become in Central Europe.
However, there is one tiny exception to all the Central Europe wintertime depression: Those four weeks before Christmas.
It’s the only time of the year, where I appreciate that it gets dark in the afternoon. It’s the only time of the year everyone will gladly spent their day outside even though they might not feel their toes in the end. Thanks to the lovely German Christmas markets.
Germans just love Christmas markets and they’re really good at them. (I usually don’t do national pride, but Germany really does have the best Christmas markets. And Austria too maybe.) Even the tiniest village of 300 inhabitants usually has a seasonal market — if only for one weekend.
For the Germans, Christmas markets are highly social events: You take your families (the girls above are my two baby sisters), or go with co-workers right after work. The four weeks before Christmas are actually the only time of the year, Germany has an after-work-drinks-culture. Thus, Christmas markets are not exactly the best place to go gift shopping. Most stalls actually only sell Christmas-related products and home decor anyways.
In general, all goods you can buy at German Christmas markets are handcrafted and not industrially produced. Most likely, you will find booths selling hand-carved wooden houses, horse-hair brushes, individual jewelry, or bee wax candles. I love admiring the art work, but I rarely buy anything at the markets.
I’ve visited a lot of Christmas markets throughout the last years and consider myself a bit of an expert. And since I’ve witnessed a lot of foreigners misunderstanding the German Christmas market culture, here are five things you should know before planning a trip to Germany around Christmas:
Don’t Just Drink Mulled Wine
Mulled wine, or Glühwein, is without doubt the most famous of all the hot drinks served at German Christmas markets. But it’s not necessarily the best drink. Over the years I’ve stopped drinking regular Glühwein to try something new every year: Mulled wine with cherry or blueberry flavor, for example.
Nowadays, I also really love white Glühwein or apple-cinnamon-flavored white mulled wine or Feuerzagenbowle. If you’re not into wine at all, you should maybe try a Lumumba — hot cocoa with rum. Of course, you can also have an extra splash of rum in your regular Glühwein too: Just order a mulled wine with a shot, “Glühwein mit Schuss”.
Lately, there is also a new Glühbier trend coming up — bascially hot, sweet, spice-flavored beer. I’m not too big of a fan, but I’ve met a lot of people who really love Glühbier. All in all, you can pretty much find any hot, sweet, fruity, boozy drink combination at a German Christmas market and I’m sure you’d miss out if you just stuck to the plain Glühwein.
And one last practical tip: There always is a small deposit (2 € tops) for mugs and glasses — so make sure to bring a little more cash than you think you might need. And also consider not getting your deposit back to keep a Christmas market mug, because they make great souvenirs. I actually drink my coffee out of Christmas market mugs all year.
Be Aware of the Ecclesiastical Year
Every year, it’s the same old story: I go grocery shopping in early September and the whole supermarket was somehow crammed with Christmas chocolates overnight. I will never understand these retail rules and I complain about it every year. But at least the Christmas markets in Germany begin the Christmas season with adequate timing: Because even though we’ve become a very secularized country, the year is still mostly influenced by the important dates of the church year.
In mid-November, my instagram feed was overflowing with Christmas market photos from London to Vancouver, but in Germany opening the markets this early would be a bit of a sacrilege. The last two Sundays before the four pre-Christmas Advent Sundays are dedicated to the memory of the deceased. Rarely anyone in Germany would dare to open a Christmas market before the Sunday in Commemoration of the Dead has passed — out of respect and compassion, which in this rare occasion are stronger than economical greediness and capitalism. So, pay respect and don’t expect to find Christmassy Germany in November already.
Wear as Many Layers as Possible
It might be entirely nuts to be standing outside in subzero temperatures for hours like it is the most normal thing in the world. But trust me, even if they look careless, the Germans freeze too. They just know how to stay warm enough: When I’m heading out for a Christmas market, I usually wear wool tights underneath my jeans, plus to extra pairs of socks.
Believe me, your toes will be the first thing that will start hurting in the cold and the more layers of socks you wear, the longer you can last in the cold. Also, watch the ground: Most Christmas markets have some areas with saw dust or straw on the ground, and it makes an immense difference if you sip your Glühwein standing on plain pavement or straw. Your feet will be very thankful! And besides keeping your feet warm, just wear every layer you can find.
Don’t worry about looking like a blowfish — you cannot possibly wear enough shirts on top of each other! Oh, and looking for fireplaces is a great way to stay warm too.
Oh and just for your information — if it happens to be more than 7 degrees Celsius outside, Germans will actually complain that it is too warm to drink Glühwein. Yes, I’m not making this up.
Visit the Markets in the Dark — But Not at Night
Christmas markets are most magical when it gets dark. Luckily, in December the sun usually sets around 4 pm so you’ll definitely experience a Christmas market in its most beautiful setting when you visit in the afternoon. But don’t go too late in the evening, because the markets close quite early.
Since the markets are usually located in the city centers, rarely any German city administration allows music and bright lights after 10 pm. The Christmas market in my new adapted home town Göttingen even closes at 8.30 pm. My favorite time to visit a Christmas market is during blue hour — makes for the best photos and it won’t be as cold as a couple of hours after sunset.
Try All The Food
Basically, Christmas markets are just all about the food. There is just so. much. food you could try. The best thing is to try it all by sharing with friends — and watching out for the regional specialties. Most German Christmas markets will have booths selling French crêpes, Hungarian langos, and an abundance of German sausages.
My favorite typical Christmas food are Kartoffelpuffer or Reibekuchen (fried potato pancakes, also known as latkes) with apple sauce and sugar-roasted almonds.
As for the regional specialties: They vary in every state, but I highly recommend Dampfnudel (a giant sweet dumping served with vanilla sauce) and Nürnberger Würstchen (mini-sausages from Nuremberg) when in Bavaria, and Käsespätzle (thick pasta with fried onions and cheese) in Baden-Würtemberg. And the drinks might be a regional specialty too: Frankfurt is famous for its apple cider, so make sure to try the hot, sweetened version of it around Christmas.
Have you been to a German Christmas market? Which are your favorite ones?
What foods and drinks should definitely be tried in your opinion?
The photos in this post were taken at this year’s Christmas markets in Göttingen, Hannover, and Kassel, all of which I recommend visiting.