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Oh, Christmastime! It’s that same tinsel-topped routine every year: Get out the old ornaments, chomp the tree-shaped sugar cookies, hear Mariah Carey belt the song for six weeks straight. Stateside, the traditions — particularly the shopping ones — run like clockwork, from the moment Thanksgiving’s last turkey is tucked into the oven and until next year’s fireworks explode.
There’s a place, though, where family gifts are less Amazon-ordered novelties and smartly packed L’Occitane stocking stuffers and more handmade wooden nutcrackers, stollen breads, and lebkuchen. Welcome to the whimsical world of European Christkindlesmarkts, a fantasy I’d never known until I experienced them first-hand — and one I no longer think I can endure winter without.
I spent the past week hopping from town to town on an Adventures by Disney river cruise down the Danube, visiting close to a dozen Christkindlmarkets through Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and Hungary. Wandering through the garland-lined rows of green huts or tinsel-topped wooden shacks outside churches, surrounding town squares, and in tiny nooks within small neighborhoods, I was taken aback by the variety and charm of these can’t-miss street fairs I’d somehow never seen before.
They’re not quite a craft sale, food hall, or pop-up, but an old-world combination of all three. And, despite their size, offerings, or influx of guests, each has the basics: a nativity scene, festive saccharine sweets and endless bubbling barrels of Glühwein, an alcoholic wine punch for $3 a pop that makes spiced cocktails and American mulled wine look like a pure waste of time.
The Christkindlmarkts are cute in the daytime but explode in both charm and crowd activity in the evening, when locals pack in to sip different flavors of piping hot punches from matching mugs, created each year by each market, that can be kept as souvenirs for a nominal fee.
The shopping is like thrifting; to find something worthwhile, you’ll have to hunt. The majority of stalls sell things your grandma would add to her country kitchen decor — fabric doilies, felt figurines, handmade soaps— but it’s so much more than that. The uniqueness and variety waiting to be unearthed, like a booth shilling trays of miniatures or marzipan-scented incense and local fare like Salzburg’s hand-painted eggshells, all serve as unexpected surprises.
It’s brick-and-mortar in the best of ways, with no post-trip Etsy purchase option; buy it now from the burly Bavarian man, or it’ll be long lost forever.
And then there’s the food. Sugar-tossed nuts and icing-dolloped gingerbread hearts abound, as do a series of high-quality carnival-esque foods: hot slices of raclette carved straight from a cheese wheel, foot-long sausages tucked into tubes of crusty bread, oversized soft pretzels sweetened and slathered in chocolate.
I ate the best blood sausage of my life with frostbitten hands in a crammed Slovakian crowd, a delightfully soft gingerbread from a sleepy market outside a tiny German town’s stunning cathedral, and grabbed a jet-lagged dinner from a bratwurst stand topped by a glockenspiel-like Christmas Pyramid in Munich’s gorgeous, wide-spanning market. Piles of steaming meats, Goulash, schnitzels — there’s no sense in visiting a local restaurant; it’s all right here.
A fellow writer told me that Europeans visit Christmas markets three times: once with family, once with friends, and once with coworkers. Standing and shivering in Slovakia, so far from the Black Friday madness, it struck me: We’re going about the holiday season all wrong. Instead of bringing a cheap wine that looks expensive to another sad sack holiday party with the buffet of Trader Joe’s canapés and friends-of-friends you don’t want to meet, we could be slurping cheap rum-tinged hot wine in tight huddles in the center of town, drinking steadily and happily until we freeze or the market’s early closure arrives — whichever comes first.
One of my favorite memories of the trip wasn’t seeing where The Sound of Music was filmed, but sipping local Dürnstein punch with newfound friends and laughing about the garlic stench Lángos bread left on our gloves at a tiny Christkindlemarkt after hiking castle ruins in the Wachau Valley.
At every Christmas market I visited — day or night, huge or tiny, country to country — no one was recording a Snapchat or scrolling through Instagram to check the number of likes on a bratwurst photo while pretending to listen to their friends. When it’s too cold outside to text, take photos, or do anything beyond drinking your boiling pot of fruit wine before you turn into a human-sized popsicle, you’re forcibly in the moment with friends and far from distracted. If the holidays are about spending time with loved ones, it’s not for a day or two on the official day of celebration. Here, they’re actually doing it all season long.
Winter has always been so much of a wash for me in the Christkindl-less Western world. Not only is it a terrible season for a klutz — every recreational activity involves either falling down a mountain, hill, or onto a slab of ice —but also for a Jew. You know that warm pastoral feeling you get from falling snow on December 25th, or eating your parents’ traditional holiday cookies, or hearing your favorite holiday song while shopping for groceries? We don’t have that. All we have is cold weather, a limited selection of dining options, and confusion over why Starbucks has Hava Nagila, a celebratory Jewish song used at weddings for a customary Hora dance, in their non-denominational playlist.
It’s hard at times to not feel like an outcast, or at least different, due to Hanukkah’s unfortunate timing; the entire world is having a party, and poor ol’ Chanukah can’t even get a proper spell-check response. It never stood a chance, and really never should have. Our wintertime celebration is like the She’s All That of festivities, if only Rachel Leigh Cook couldn’t pull herself together in the end.
We have some dope Jewish holidays — don’t even get me started on Sukkot, when you build an outdoor dinner fort for stargazing and decorate it with branches and gourds — but the timing of Hanukkah overlapping with the commercial machine that is Christmas makes a forever imbalance, causing the end of every year to leave me feeling fully amiss.
Despite the glowy Yuletide magic of evening lights that it brings, so much of the month of December is driven by buying presents I won’t open underneath the tree I won’t have in the house my family won’t gather within. It all boils down to something I intrinsically cannot participate in, but at these Hungarian and Austrian markets, I felt equal. Sure, I’m not buying ornaments or nutcrackers for purposeful glee, but there was so much more emphasis on celebration and community at these gatherings than our two-day Christmastime holiday spectacle — or, for me, the 48 hours I routinely spent at home, bored in the basement, like a societal outcast.
In these cold, wintry territories, even though I couldn’t order correctly and fumbled with foreign currency, no one treated me strangely. I could point to a Glüwein, eat a sausage, and feel like I’m a part of something.
And now, for once, I have my own Christmas memories. The little wooden tabletop incense burners shaped like townspeople I bought from the Bavarian markets of Passau. The chocolate-dipped ice cream cones filled with marshmallow fluff I devoured in Salzburg’s massive town square, spilling coconut flakes all over my face and scarf. The toys and homemade gingerbread treats shaped like Krampus, a fabled demon that licks, beats, and drags children down to the underworld if they’ve been naughty.
It was adventure, shopping, and surprise all wrapped in one. I may not have peeked through snowy windows waiting for Santa to bring me presents as a kid, but the nostalgia I’ll have for those oppressively cold afternoons and brisk evenings at Europe’s greatest markets will be just as strong, if not more so.