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What’s the history behind Germany’s beloved Christmas markets?

Christmas markets are one of the most prized German traditions. We take a look at their historical roots.

A Christmas market in Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate.
A Christmas market in Trier, Rhineland-Palatinate. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Harald Tittel

Now in full swing for 2022, Christmas markets are a cherished part of Germany history that are still as beloved today. 

Medieval origins 

Christmas markets have evolved quite a bit from their humble origins in the late Middle Ages, (1250-1500 AD). Wintermärkte, or “winter markets,” could be found across the German speaking parts of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire, including eastern regions of France, during the period. 

Outdoor markets were quite popular at this time, and winter markets served a particularly practical purpose: providing a place for villagers to stock up on food and supplies for the upcoming winter.

They would often take place in front of the main church or the town square. Traditionally, the markets would sell mainly meat, and many of the modern Christmas markets continue this tradition with speciality Bratwurst and other hot foods. 

The Striezelmarkt in Dresden. Photo: DPA

By the 14th century, merchants from the town began using the one-day winter markets as an opportunity to sell roasted nuts, sweets, handmade baskets, and toys for children. Soon the winter markets came to align with the entire Christmas season, with many lasting during the entire four weeks of Advent. 

Local traditions

The Christmas market in Dresden, known as the Dresdner Striezelmarkt after the nickname of the city’s speciality Stollen cake, is considered the first documented Christmas market in Germany, with historians tracing it back as early as 1434.

However, the terms “December markets,” or “winter markets,” can be found in documents from as early as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in parts of Germany and Austria.

Many Christmas markets have special names, often based on the town’s special traditions. In Nuremberg, the market is referred to as the Christkindlmarkt, or “Christ child market,” where Christkind refers to an angel-like figure representing the spirit of Christmas. 

Every two years, the town selects a young woman to play the part of the Christkind to open the market. 

The Christkind opens Nuremberg’s Christmas market. Photo: DPA/Daniel Karmann. 

The term Christkind is thought to be the origin of the name “Kris Kringle,” which is used to refer to the figure of Santa Claus in other cultures. 

Frankfurt also boasts claim to one of the earliest Christmas markets at Römerberg in the Old Town. It is opened by the Lord Mayor of Frankfurt and a Christmas carol performance by the city’s opera.

Frankfurt’s markets are a great place to try tasty hot Apfelwein (apple wine) and Bethmännchen, favorite sweet treats of Goethe and Napoleon Bonaparte! 

READ ALSO: These 10 German Christmas markets cannot be missed

A growing tradition  

While Christmas markets ceased to exist during World War II, they now flourish in every city, town, and village in Germany today. 

Many channel their historical roots, while others take a unique spin on tradition.

Frankfurt’s Christmas market at Römerberg is also one of the oldest in Germany. Photo: DPA

Churches and community organisations often sponsor local markets, setting up stalls and selling classic sweets, Glühwein (mulled wine), and handmade gifts. Today, the tradition has spread beyond the German-speaking countries.

German-style Christmas markets can be found across Europe and in many festive cities in the United States. 

This beloved tradition also contributes significantly to German tourism, with over 85 million visitors making the trip to at least one of the markets every year (in non-pandemic times).

READ ALSO: 8 of the most beautiful German Christmas markets

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German Christmas market closures ‘can’t be ruled out’: health expert

As Germany battles a fierce Covid wave, concerns are growing over events, with one health expert saying closures of the country's beloved Christmas markets can't be ruled out.

Revellers enjoy mulled wine at the 'Santa Pauli' Christmas market in Hamburg on November 15th.
Revellers enjoy mulled wine at the 'Santa Pauli' Christmas market in Hamburg on November 15th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt

Martina Wenker, president of the Lower Saxony Medical Association, said she believed Christmas markets may have to be cancelled if the Covid-19 situation gets worse in Germany. 

“Depending on the regional incidence situation, closures should not be ruled out in extreme cases,” Wenker told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

“We can’t stand by and celebrate while next door in the hospitals, planned operations have to be postponed frequently, corona patients are dying, and staff in practices and clinics are at their limits.”

Wenker said regional leaders allowed the opening of Christmas markets on the basis that the Covid situation was moderate.

“But if we reach higher levels of escalation, we will have to consider whether Christmas markets are still justifiable,” she said.

Germany on Tuesday reported 32,048 Covid infections within 24 hours and 265 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence increased to 312.4 Covid cases per 100,000 residents. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s Covid incidence tops 300 for first time

‘Maximum safety’

Bavarian state premier Markus Söder said on Monday that he wanted to ensure there was “maximum safety” around Christmas markets.

He said it will be among the topics discussed at the Covid crisis talks between the federal government and state leaders this Thursday. 

In general, Söder said mask requirements should remain at Christmas markets as well as distance rules and other protection measures. 

In an interview with broadcaster Bayern3, Söder explained that so far there is no legal framework for Bavaria to cancel Christmas markets. “At the moment, we cannot legally order it,” he said.

Some Christmas markets, which have recently opened to the public, are already enforcing strict rules such as excluding the unvaccinated from entry, or not serving alcohol to people unless they can show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid. 



Christmas market – (der) Weihnachtsmarkt

Celebrate – feiern

Planned operations/procedures – geplante Eingriffe 

Postponed – verschoben

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