Twinkling lights festoon a Christmassy canvas of open-air stalls chockablock with hand-carved wooden toys, glass-blown ornaments, straw stars and the like. The aromas of bratwurst, gingerbread and toasted almonds mingle in the cool, crisp air as visitors clink mugs brimming with hot apple cider and mulled wine.
Against a backdrop of amusements, from a Ferris wheel to merry-go-rounds, carolers and oompah bands provide a seasonal soundtrack to the festive atmosphere. For a moment, you might think you were in the midst of a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Dresden, Nuremberg, Frankfurt, Munich or some other enchanting city in Germany—if it weren’t for the fact that you never left the country and perhaps even drove here in the family car.
German Christmas markets, also called Christkindlmärkts (Christkindl or Christkind, which translates to “Christ-child,” often refers to the spirit of Christmas or an angelic gift bearer), date to the 13th century to Vienna’s Dezembermarkt (December market). During the one- or two-day market hosted by shopkeepers, people could purchase supplies of food and household items to sustain them through winter. Soon, wintermarkts (winter markets) began to sprout up all over Europe, offering not only seasonal staples but also gift items.
These markets evolved into Christmas markets, which heralded the four-week season of Advent, culminating on Christmas Eve. Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt (strietzel referring to the fruit bread, now known as stollen, sold at the market) in 1434 is believed to be the first bona-fide Christmas market and is Germany’s oldest continuously running one, now in its 587th year.
If you can’t jaunt off to Germany to attend a Weihnachtsmarkt, no worries; you can experience a sleighload of German-style markets right here in the US. Here are three to put on your list.
Christmas Village features a Ferris wheel and other classic amusements in the spirit of traditional German Christmas markets. Photo by K. Kelly for Visit Philadelphia®
Center City Philadelphia
November 26 to December 24, with a preview weekend November 20 and 21
Unveiled in 2008 and promoted as “Philly’s authentic German Christmas market,” this annual wintry village attracts visitors in search of the holiday spirit—as well as some great gifts and German fare—to LOVE Park and City Hall in the heart of the city. Thousands of lights glow throughout a free-admission—and dog-friendly—village of open-air huts beckoning shoppers with unique ornaments, jewelry, art, crafts, sweets and more.
Along with shopping, eating and drinking are major draws here, of course. And there’s no calorie counting allowed when you have a smorgasbord of traditional German, Belgian and Swiss menu options, including bratwurst, raclette cheese sandwiches (melted Alpine cheese on a baguette), schnitzel (seasoned veal cutlet), spätzle (noodle-like boiled egg dumplings), latkes (potato pancakes or fritters), Belgian fries (thick cut and double fried), hot chocolate, hot cider, beer and, of course, glühwein (mulled wine), served exclusively in a signature Christmas Village souvenir mug.
As in many markets in Germany, amusement rides take center stage in the village. Purchase ride tickets to go for a spin on a classic carousel smack-dab in the middle of the City Hall Courtyard. Then head over to the North Broad Section of the market to ride a 65-foot-high Ferris wheel and, especially for little ones, take a train ride on the Christmas Village Express. Santa’s House will also be open for photo ops with der Weihnachtsmann (that’s Santa Claus to you and me). Special events, including a Christkind Ceremony and wine and beer tastings, round out the festivities.
Once you’ve stocked up on your made-in-Germany merchandise, check out the complementary Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market at Dilworth Park (madeinphila.com), open from November 20, 2021, to January 1, 2022, on the west side of City Hall. This welcoming winter wonderland presents local artists, designers, crafters, jewelers and confectioners selling their handmade goods in tents adorned with multipointed Moravian stars. Cap off the day at the park’s ice rink skating under a canopy of holiday lights and stars as you take in Center City’s surrounding mix of modern and historic architecture.
Holiday ornaments are elevated to awe-inspiring works of art at the Denver Christkindlmarket. Courtesy of Visit Denver
DENVER CHRISTKINDL MARKET
November 19 to December 23
This annual free-admission extravaganza, hosted by the German American Chamber of Commerce, transforms the 12-acre Civic Center Park—Denver’s only National Historic Landmark—into a grand German-style Christmas village. Visitors can stroll through an Artisan Marketplace stocked with everything from traditional toy nutcrackers, glass-blown ornaments and nesting dolls, to mini fire pits, handmade winter accessories, and 14ers posters (Colorado has 58 so-called 14ers, or peaks over 14,000 feet). You can also shop from home through an online marketplace.
Market-goers can partake of authentic European cuisine such as knödel (boiled dumplings), Viennese apple strudel, stollen, bratwurst, Bavarian pretzels, chocolates hand-sculpted into figurines and more.
Those age 21 and over can wash it down with a mug of red, white or blueberry glühwein; Bavarian-style beers, including pilsner, Märzen, dunkel or weissbier; or perhaps a Bäranjäger honey liqueur or a Mozart chocolate liqueur drink. The beautifully decorated Festival Hall offers an inviting spot to eat, drink and warm up.
Children will enjoy photo ops on select dates with St. Nikolaus and, of course, the Christkind bedecked in her white and gold gown and gold crown. And everyone can revel in the Parade of Lights and entertainment presented at the park’s Greek Theater, including performances by the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, German polka musicians and dancers, carolers singing holiday hymns in many languages and more. Pets are welcome, too.
ChristkindlMarket. Photo Courtsey of Jim Prisching
November 19 to December 24
After presenting a virtual-only marketplace in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this granddaddy of German-style Christmas markets in the US is making a triumphant return to downtown’s Daley Plaza this year, when it’ll also mark its 25th anniversary. What began in 1996 as an event hosted by the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest to promote bilateral trade between the US and Germany has become a top citywide celebration. (The chamber is also hosting a similar event, Christkindlmarket Wrigleyville, at Gallagher Way, adjacent to Wrigley Field, November 19 to December 31.)
Local and international vendors—including those from Germany as well as from India, Ireland, Canada, Nepal, Peru and elsewhere—will set up shop in a holiday village setting straight out of a storybook, complete with trees draped in glittering lights and row upon row of candy cane-striped wooden booths. Among artisan gifts galore, you’ll find classic German holiday items such as glass ornaments from various German vendors and Christmas pyramids (wooden carousels depicting Christmas scenes and figures topped with windmill-like blades powered from the warm air of candles) from the famous Käthe Wohlfahrt shop and others. You’ll also find handmade sweaters, nutcrackers, incense smokers, cuckoo clocks, steins, glühwein mugs, candles and more. A virtual marketplace will also present collectors’ items available for purchase online.
When it comes to market fare, German holiday staples as well as foods from around the world are on offer with more than 30 variations of roasted nuts, bratwurst, stollen, strudel, pretzels, potato pancakes, goulash soup, raclette sandwiches, Döner kebabs (think gyros) and Himalayan dishes. Accompany your meal with glühwein, served in the annual souvenir mug, or a cup of hot chocolate or apple cider as you take in special events, from choral performances to a children’s lantern parade to photo ops with the Christkind.
What are you waiting for? Change into your lederhosen, grab your shopping list, and bring your appetite to a German-style market near you.