How to Create Your Own Christmas Market

German Christmas markets are one of a kind. They feature unique architecture in the form of Christmas huts, the Christmas pyramid, lighted arches (Lichterbogen), some historic buildings as a backdrop (like the city hall, stores and even churches), murals, a giant Christmas tree and a stage for performances.  The theme of the Christmas markets depend on the planning by local governments and residents, although most Christmas markets follow the models presented by the ones in Nuremberg and Dresden.

 

Yet despite large cities in Germany (and parts of Europe) and the US having the Christmas markets going on during the Advent period, the question that many smaller towns and villages have is can a person create a Christmas market in their community?  When looking at the German-named villages in Minnesota alone, not one of them exists. Not even in New Ulm, which is the most German of these communities.  Yet New Ulm’s population, topography and size is comparable to the Christmas market I visited in Glauchau (Saxony), which justifies the need for a Christmas market to complement the German businesses that exist in the town of 14,000 inhabitants, such as Schell’s Brewery, Veigel’s Kaiserhoff and Domeier’s German Store.

Then again, when looking at a village like Heilsberg in Thuringia, which is only a fraction of the population size of Glauchau and New Ulm, one can see that it is possible to have a Christmas market, if members of the community are willing to cooperate and sell typical items while using the money collected for a good purpose.

 

Located 13 kilometers north of Rudostadt and 25 kilometers east of Stadtilm in the Thuringian Forest, Heilsberg has only 200 inhabitants and has belonged to the community cluster of Remda-Teichel since 1997. However, its existence dates back to the 820s AD, when the city was first mentioned in the record books. The lone attraction of Heilsberg is the St. Boniface’s Church, which was built in 1718, with extensions in 1764. Despite thorough renovations during the 1990s, the church still holds service for the congregation, most of whom are from the village.

 

Since 2011, the village has hosted the Christmas Market, which is held on one Saturday during the holiday season. From three in the afternoon until ten at night, residents of the town, including family members and guests would gather, drink a spiced wine, try a local, family specialty and listen to carols from the church choir. The set-up of the market is rather simple, especially when everyone helps. The venue of the Christmas market is usually the bus stop, which consists of a loop-like parking lot that is not only enough for busses and cars to park but also for adding a half dozen huts, a stage and some entertainment.

The arrangement of the Christmas market is very simple: On the morning of the market, a team of volunteers would arrange the market, where the bus stop is converted into a combination of a stage for performances and a bar which sells spiced wine (Glühwein) and mead (Heisser Met). Next to the bus stop (on the right for this year’s market) would be the Christmas tree, consisting of a pine tree cut down in the nearby forest and hauled into the village, a day or two before. In the middle of the bus stop in front of the tree and stage would be the fire pits, where wood and charcoal are burned in steel barrels and people can warm-up in the evening. Next to them are the picnic areas, where people can sit, eat and converse. And surrounding them and the fire pits are the booths, where eateries and goods are sold.  Arranging them in a horseshoe format, a total of eight booths were arranged, each of which were built from scratch or improvised out of trailers and/or parts of trucks. Each of them is equipped with electricity which is provided through generators and extension cords from nearby houses.  The lone exception is a ninth booth, which is the blacksmith. His is located behind the picnic area opposite the stage and Christmas tree and is also equipped with two fire pits of his own- one of which is of course for the metalwork, making swords, shields, necklaces and figures out of steel.

But the production of metal goods is not the only homemade items one can find in a local Christmas market. Each booth has its own set of products to sell, but it has to be agreed upon between the coordinator and the rest of the community that is involved in setting up the market to avoid any overlapping and competition.   Apart from the booth selling hot drinks, there is one that sells meat products- namely bratwursts, steaks, kabobs and burgers. Another one sells homemade Eierlikör (in English, Advocaat) with original, chocolate and chili flavors. Another booth sells Bratapfel (baked apples with or without stuffing), again homemade and available with almond paste, chocolate, cookie and nuts, as well as with spices. The same applies to another booth that sells Christmas cookies and other candies. There is a booth that sells potatoes in a form of baked, fried in chips or fried French style- homemade and served with mustard, ketchup or even mayonaise. There is one that sells fish products- raw, baked, pulled (like Flammlachs) or smoked. Then there are two booths- one selling used goods and one selling handcrafted items, such as windlights made of glass bottles. There is one selling crepes, which is the French version of pancakes, and lastly, the market is not complete without a booth selling beer and other beverages. In Heilsberg’s case, there was no handcrafted beer, yet with this hobby becoming the norm in American households, one should put that into consideration if the beer crafted in the past has been embraced by those who enjoy a mug or two. Products are sold at a relatively affordable price, and proceeds go to the cause of choice.  While in the case of Heilsberg, the money collected goes to their church for the renovation of the church bell (which is expected to be completed by the end of next year), other Christmas markets in nearby villages have donated money to charity helping the children in need, school or church programs that foster the child’s growth, local sports teams for new equipment. In one case, a nearby village collects money for a children’s hospice care facility in the north of Thuringia in Nordhausen, located west of Leipzig.

And while markets like the one in Glauchau feature a pair of modern pyramids, an Adventskalendar, an ice skating rink, some lighted arches (Lichterbogen) for sale or decoration pending on the size and preference, and Räuchermänner, they are not really a necessity if one compensates these with musical performances from local groups. In the case of Heilsberg, a local church choir singing carols is enough because of its population size. Even a little Christmas comedy and story-telling about the birth of Jesus and miracles at Christmas time are enough to bring in crowds from both inside as well as from surrounding areas.  This is what makes a local Christmas market like this one really special. 🙂 Just don’t forget to invite Santa Claus. 😉

After all the drinking, eating, singing and conversing, the market is taken down the next morning, most likely after the church service, with the Christmas tree being taken to the church for use during the Christmas masses on Christmas Eve and the 1st Day of Christmas. In Germany, we have three days of Christmas from the 24th to the 26th, in comparison to only two in many countries like America. The tree remains there until the Day of Epiphany, when it is taken down. As for the booths, they are converted back to their original uses, the leftovers eaten up or given away to the poor, the unsold goods donated, and the ideas back to the drawing table to see how they can better the market for this time next year.

The advocaat stand, selling homemade liquor

As small as the Christmas market is in Heilsberg, a day for a few hours will do. However the bigger the community the more likely it is necessary to extend the market by a day, another weekend or even more. It depends on how seriously a community takes its Christmas markets. As mentioned in my column about my last Christmas market in Glauchau, as big as the city is and with as much history as it has (read more about it here), one Advent weekend is not enough, especially because of its predominance of Lutheranism. But there may be some reasons behind that. Werdau, located 10 kilometers west of Glauchau, has a three-hour Christmas market that takes place on one Sunday and that’s it. Too short to German standards, but one that best attracts people to this community of 18,000. Having a Christmas market takes a lot of planning, which includes where to have the venue, when to host it, who is ready to sell goods, how many people will come and esp. what will the money collected from the sales be used for. That alone is the core of the market.

 

While only a few Christmas markets can be found in the US- namely in large cities, like Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Atlanta, as well as areas strong in German heritage, such as in Wisconsin and Ohio, plus Amana Colonies in Iowa, it doesn’t mean it is impossible to host one in your community. Especially in the German-named villages, like the ones in Minnesota, people will profit from having one, even if it is on a weekend. All it takes is looking at this success story of Heilsberg, look at the recipes for the products typically sold at the markets below, collaborate as to where to have it- be it in the business district, at a park or church, put some booths together, and make it as typically European as possible. With the last one, one might want to look to German communities as references- not necessarily Nuremberg or Dresden, but others that have held these markets for many years in smaller communities to collect some ideas before starting this adventure. There are enough examples to go around, especially when looking at the markets visited and profiled by the Files since 2010. Then it is off to the races.

 

Can you imagine a market in front of a church or at a bar and grill restaurant in Bergen? Or what about Marktplatz in New Ulm? In front of the Catholic Church overlooking the lake in Fulda would be a traditional smash hit. Or at a ski resort near Luxembourg, in front of Heimey’s Bar and Grill in New Germany, in the parking lot of Flensburg’s Bar and Grill- all one hot spots.  Add this to New Trier’s Snow Days and that would really attract a crowd. But then again, other non-German named communities should try the concept as well. All is possible. It’s just a matter of interest, planning and making it happen.

 

Here are some recipes worth trying:

Glühwein (Spiced Wine)

Mead (Heisse Met)

Advocaat (Eierlikör)

Hot Granny (Heisse Oma)

Dresdner Landbrot

Langosch

Homemade Bratwurst

Crepes

Roasted Nuts

Dresdner Stollen

 

All photos and the map are courtesy of Michael Fox, who also provided some information on the Christmas market in Heilsberg. A special thanks for his work and the homemade advocaat that will be tasted over Christmas.  A guide on the Christmas markets including the ones visited this year (so far) is available here. It also has a list of German-named villages in Minnesota worth visiting.

 

2013 Christmas Market Tour: Berlin- Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz Station, the entrance point of the Christmas Market Photos taken in December 2013

Berlin, the City that Never Sleeps. This is the one sentence that can be described about Germany’s capital. With 3.5 million inhabitants, the city is diverse in culture and history. It is full of people from different backgrounds meeting together at various bars and eateries that remain open through the night. One should not exclude various discotheks where people go dancing, and bookstores where you can buy books in the most exotic languages.  And even though it used to be divided by the Infamous Wall from 1961 to 1989, the city is considered home by many people who are either connected with the city or have moved here from all over the world, including many from the US.  So it is no wonder that Berlin’s diversity can not only be found while walking its streets (like the famous Unter den Linden), but also in the Christmas markets the city has to offer.

There are dozens of Christmas markets in and around the city, but the Files decided to focus on the main ones in the city centre Mitte, for each one, centrally located, have a different theme that makes it appealing to tourists wanting to spend time in the capital. The first stop on the Christmas Market Tour through Berlin is Alexanderplatz.

Alexanderplatz is located in the former eastern part of Berlin which was the capital of the German Democratic Republic from 1949 until German Reunification in 1990 (Berlin later became the capital of a reunified Germany when the government voted unanimously to relocate from Bonn, then the former capital of West Germany).  Alexanderplatz features a train station serving city and regional train services, two market squares straddling the tracks- one to the east at in the shopping district and the other near City Hall- and the TV-Tower, built in 1969 with a purpose to track down East Germans trying to flee to the West through the Wall. It is now the tourist attraction where people can see all of Berlin and places 30 kilometers beyond the border.

The Christmas market we’re looking at is the shopping area side of Alexanderplatz, where it is the most populous of the Christmas markets in Mitte.  How populous? In one sentence: If the market, which is 300 square meters in size is filled to a point where traffic is shoulder-to-shoulder at 5:30pm in the evening, then you do not want to know how crowded it is two to four hours later. In other words, visit this one at midday unless you are there alone at night for the colorful  lights that stream along the small huts, the Lichterbogen (Christmas arc) and the Christmas Pyramide, touted as the largest in Mitte with four floors containing different themes.

Lichterbogen (Christmas light arc)

The shopping area part of Alexanderplatz’s Christmas market is open to the public and features a wide-array of everything a person could ask for that is common for many Christmas markets in Germany. This ranges from gifts to eateries, to even beverages. Most of them are regional- meaning from Berlin and regions in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony. However you can find some exceptions, like the snowballs biscuits from Rothenburg ob der Taube in Bavaria or the famous Thuringian bratwurst (although there is the Berlin variant there.)  It is the midway point between the amusement park portion of the Christmas market located only 400 meters south of Alexanderplatz and the more cultural and homemade variant of the market on the other side of the tracks west of the station.

Yet not everything is as plain and ordinary as mentioned. Apart from the huts and other architecture being lit in various colors, they present different colors and designs that make it appealing. North of the streetcar tracks that go through the train station, most of the huts are made with typical German trusses you find on houses: white background with dark colored trusses that stick out. On the opposite end, most of the huts have a dark brown color, presenting its natural form. This is where the arc and pyramid are located. The double-decker carousel also conforms to the color code. And since the Pyramide features a shop where drinks are available, one can sit in front of the bonfire, sip on some mulled wine and enjoy the architecture that is featured at the market. And this after spending some time shopping in the Galleria Kaufhof shopping complex or even ice skating at the rink.

The market at Alexanderplatz is the largest and busiest of the Christmas markets, which explains the logic behind opening earlier than other markets (at 8:00am) and extending their season to New Year. The Christmas markets are a gathering point for family and friends, as well as a tourist attraction if you want to visit and write about them. Yet if one is encouraged to visit early in the morning and come around after Christmas to enjoy the shops as well as the food and drink, it can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. A curse because if you want to visit the place at night, you will most likely not have a chance because of the crowd. A blessing because you have a chance to see it during the times when it is not as busy. Both because you might earn that extra Euro in drinks, food and goods, but it will cost you your last nerve, especially right before Christmas, when you have very little time to do your last-minute shopping for gifts for your loved ones.

So here’s a word of advice when tackling the largest Christmas market in Mitte: stop there early and beat the rush before going to the other markets. Speaking of other markets, let’s move on to the next one, shall we?

 

POP QUIZ:

As we’re on the topic of Christmas Markets, here are a couple questions for you to answer:

1. How many Christmas markets can be found in Berlin and all of its metropolitan areas (Potsdam included)?

a. 30     b. 50      c. 70       d. 90      e. 100     f. more than 120

 

2. Of this number, which ones are open until (and through) New Year?

 

3. Look at the picture below and to the right side. What is that and who was the mastermind behind this architectural wonder? Note: This one is one of the popular places to see while at Alexanderplatz, year round.

Look at the object on the right hand side of the picture and try and answer the question.

 

The answers will come after the article about the last Christmas market documented in Berlin (could take a while to complete, by the way).

You can also view the photos of the Christmas markets in Berlin via Flensburg Files’ facebook page, which you can access here. Note that there are more pictures to come that will be posted in this album.  Please note that you can like the Files to get more coverage on the Christmas markets and other themes on German-American relations presented in this column.