Come, Spend, All Ye Faithful

By John Borthwick


The scene looks like an old-time Christmas card come to life, plus shopping. Snow and church steeples frame a town square where a Yuletide market is in full swing, its stalls laden with handicrafts, gingerbread biscuits and toys not made in China.

The European tradition of local Christmas markets bears little resemblance to Western-style Christmas shopping – you know, that panicked, last-minute mall trawl that results in the giving of undies (wrong size) and hankies (once again) and the receiving of “Didn’t-know-what-to-buy-you” gift vouchers.

Austrians and Germans, for instance, have a bit more Yule cred when it comes to Christmas culture. No ersatz Santa Snow for them. The real thing falls like manna from heaven (to soon become slush under-foot) on town squares where, from late November until Christmas, local markets keep alive a long Advent tradition.

“It was a magical thing to do,” Ursula, an Austrian friend tells me, recalling the markets and the build-up, all accompanied by heart-starters of mulled wine, bratäpfel (baked apples) and roasted chestnuts. “We would shop at these markets for hand-painted candles and baubles for the Christmas tree. And wooden toys and real souvenirs — not just dorky T-shirts and DVDs,” she says.

The markets typically span the four Advent weeks leading up to Christmas and each town puts plenty of effort into its event. In Vienna, giant candies and stars hang from Christmas trees, kids ride the old carousel and market stalls in the narrow lanes of Spittelberg offer the quality crafts like hand-blown glass, rugs and jewellery. Vienna also has Christmas markets at the Karlskirche, Belvedere Palace and Freyung Square.

Ice-skating, those old Habsburg palaces, carols, carousels — a Viennese market can seem like the full Christmas calendar come to life. Meanwhile, Salzburg’s market on Cathedral Square dates back to 1491. One chronicler recorded in 1793 that the city’s Nikolaimarkt — St Nicholas Market — ran for the 14 days on either side of the feast of St Nick — Christmas — during which “dolls and sweets are sold and everyone is permitted to sell old or second-hand goods in public.”

It doesn’t sound quite as racy as go-go damsels on Pattaya’s Walking Street singing, “Jinger ben, jinger ben (aka Jingle Bells) … one dink for me, mister?” but, where there’s a tavern and a town and a season to be frisky … there’s often a killjoy.

In 1903, for instance, Salzburg’s city fathers declared, “Residents of the city are permitted to sell all types of goods excluding food, stimulants and beverages.” Right. No doubt those residents got around the latter exclusions even before the ink was dry on the paper or the glühwein on the burghers’ own prissy lips.

The Salzburg Christmas Market still takes place beneath the gaze of the city’s grand, baroque cathedral. Countless stalls sell products made especially for the Yule season, such as wooden toys, lanterns, pewter ware and Christmas ornaments. Hawkers do a roaring trade in hot sausages, tea and alcoholic punch to fortify your shopping spirit. 

In romantic Innsbruck, the Altstadt Christmas Market is known for its huge, illuminated Christmas tree and Tyrolean handicrafts. It is held in the historic Old Town where the narrow lanes are peopled with life-sized giants, princesses and mythical creatures from the world of fairy tales. Just add candles, choirs and kiachln (hot doughnuts laced with sauerkraut or jam).

Germany’s old town squares and medieval castles make what the PR hacks would call “a fairy-tale setting” for the Christkindl market fairs that date back to the 14th century. The tradition lives on today in some 150 Christmas markets across the country. In all of them, that hot, spiced wine goes straight to your brain to accelerate the purchasing of even more gifts.

Having loaded up on handmade souvenirs and crystal ware, you realise the excess baggage bill on getting it all home is going to be alarming. One solution is to eat, not pack, what you purchase. German Christmas treats not to miss — even if they’ll add to your on-person excess weight — are stollen Christmas cake (dense with dried fruits and nuts), rostbratwürste (charcoal-grilled sausages), gebrannte mandeln (roasted almonds) and marzipanbrot.

Dresden’s Christmas market, the oldest in Germany, dates back to 1434 and boasts the tallest nutcracker in the world, plus the tallest Christmas pyramid, a 15-metre high wooden carousel with angels and nativity scenes. Not to be outdone, Berlin is home to some 60 Christmas markets. The one not to be missed is Weihnachtszauber, or Christmas Magic, at Gendarmenmarkt. Its brightly decorated booths are framed by two illuminated cathedrals and the Concert House, and a popular feature is a large craftsmen’s tent where you can watch toy makers, goldsmiths and wood carvers creating gifts.

From Thailand to Transylvania, wherever you shop (whichever mall you trawl), may all your Christmases be bright and all your jinger ben be rung.