Although German Christmas markets can now be found around the world, the real thing is less purely Teutonic than one might think – traders come from all over Europe to set up stalls at the markets across Germany.
Stuttgart’s market opens each year on the Wednesday after Remembrance Sunday, but like all the others, only after months of planning and an intense build week.
Bernd Bullinger has been the ringmaster of Stuttgart’s Christmas market for the past decade.
Although visitors meandering the 4,200 square feet of market area might feel the myriad of crafts and edibles on offer have come together by chance, Bullinger said he monitors the variety very carefully.
"My focus on the market is to get special, handcrafted products that shoppers can't find anywhere else," he said.
Demand for stall space is huge
Each year, the market hosts 285 traders, up to 90 per cent of whom are regulars. Demand for those spots which become vacant is high, with between 1,500 and 2,000 applicants for each one.
Bullinger is the one who has to strike a balance of products on offer.
If a wooden toy maker retires, for example, Bullinger tries to replace the seller with another of that type. "So, in the name of variety, even with 2,000 applicants, it's sometimes hard to find the right trader."
The other crucial matter which visitors might not immediately appreciate is the tricky hunt for big and beautiful enough fir trees.
Four large trees, between 25 and 28 metres tall, must be located, bought, transported and decorated each year. In recent years, the greenery has been found in the Schwabisch Alps. This year, the price tag came to nearly €25,000.
Trials of getting the right trees
"It takes some time to get proper trees," Bullinger said. "Often people will call to say they have nice trees, but when we get there we learn they're only about 10 metres high."
Touring the market with Bullinger on day two of the build-up, it is clear he is a one-man show – ensuring traders are in the right place, and all safety regulations are being followed.
"There could be 20 of me, and it still wouldn't be enough,” he said. Many of the traders are focusing on decorating the roofs of their stalls – a particular speciality in Stuttgart.
They bear greenery, sleighs, lights, moving figurines and much more. Traders have been known to spend thousands on the their rooftop displays, and the trend has developed in recent years into a friendly competition decided by a vote by visitors via a form in the city’s weekly newspaper.
Melanie Weber, 32, has a gingerbread stall in the Schlossplatz with nearly €5,000 worth of decorations on her roof. "We add something to the scene each year, costing about €1,000," she said. She seems to relish the competition but admitted to never having won the top prize. "Maybe this year," she said hopefully.
A Herculean effort to prepare the stalls
The traders make Herculean efforts to get their stalls ready on time. The build-up period might be full of jokes about taking Glühwein breaks but actually there was hardly a moment to spare.
Glass artist Alex Kogan, 50, and his stall manager Norbert Kuhnel, 60, said they had been working long hours to get everything done. "We finished last night at midnight and were back here this morning for seven," Kogan said.
"Building up is the hardest part," said Kuhnel, who will be alone at the stall for 10 hours a day through the entire 26-day run of the market.
"I love the market," says Kuhnel. "Just talking to people every day - with new faces and new little stories, talking about different stuff - it's nice to be here. I love the atmosphere."
Enrica Blessing, 37, who has had a stall selling olive oil bath products for the past six years made it clear there was not much time for taking breaks and socialising. "I believe the neighbour sells soup," she says jokingly, pointing out that she spends 10-12 hours in her stall, rather than out with the market visitors.
Yet even though she gets little chance to browse with the other shoppers, she said she loved being amidst them and seeing their cheerful faces. "It's a wonderful feeling when someone buys your product and is happy to do so," she explains.
Months of preparation
"People are happy here at the Stuttgart market, and that makes for a good feeling."
Although the four million or so visitors to the Stuttgart market may see it as a purely Christmas activity – to soak up the atmosphere and assuage looming present-list anxiety – it is a months-long endeavour.
Blessing and other craft stall holders have been preparing for months, making the products which will fill their stalls. The olive oil specialist said she began making her soaps, milks and body butters at least three months ago.
Glass expert Kogan said he starts planning as early as February when he and his team begin hand blowing candle holders and decorations for the next market season. "In January we get a bit of sleep," Kogan joked. And even Bullinger said he started planning in May.
This preparation can be seen in the regular restocking of stalls by truck and parcel delivery as there is little space for keeping extra stuff in the stalls. There is also the considerable matter of up to 500 busloads of people who arrive each day.
The management of all this – at markets across the country, and largely unseen by visitors – could be described as a minor Christmas miracle in itself.
Stuttgart’s market stretches through the heart of the city, open from 10am to 9pm. In Schlossplatz, children can bake, paint glass, ride a steam train around a miniature city, dip fruits into chocolate and decorate gingerbread cookies.
And for parents looking to get a bit of child-free shopping done, check out the free day care on offer at Stuttgart's city hall, from November 29 to December 22, Wednesday through Fridays from 3pm to 7pm and on Saturdays from noon to 4pm.
In Schillerplatz, visitors will enjoy finding unique, handcrafted products. Across from the town hall, with its window-based annual Advent calendar countdown, shoppers will find everything from toys to slippers. In Karlsplatz, meanwhile, those seeking older treasures will revel in the annual antique market, complete with expert appraisers.
Stuttgart's market runs this year from November 28 to December 23. For more information click here
Other Christmas markets in Germany