The History of the Christmas Market


In my mind I was sure that just a few weeks ago I was lying in the sun by the swimming pool, turning that shade of red that us foreigners do while here in Spain. Then, yesterday, I saw someone post on Facebook, “that’s the Christmas shopping done” and suddenly I realised that the run up* to the holidays had already begun. It’s now the time of year when the days get shorter, the nights colder and the streets become busy with shoppers stepping on each other’s toes trying to find presents.
I find this time of year quite stressful and I have a terrible habit of putting off* buying gifts until the last possible moment. But even for mild Scrooges* like me, there is something warm and nice about all the activity -something that I think is represented in the traditional Christmas market-.

The history of the Christmas market can, unsurprisingly, be traced back to* German speaking areas of Europe in the late middle ages. It is said that the original Christmas market was Vienna in 1296. This “Dezembermarkt” (December market) was authorised by Emperor Albrecht I to let people gather as much food for their stores as possible to get through the cold winter months. Over time, more than food started being sold alongside items such as baskets, toys and woodcarvings -something to bring a little light and cheer to the people in this dark time of the year.

It was then, in 1434 that the first recognisable Christmas market began. It was “Striezelmarket” in Dresden, Germany. This market is still very popular today, having celebrated its 580th anniversary three years ago, and is famous for its wide variety of toys and, of course, food.

The traditional food and drink at the Christmas markets is as much a part of the experience as the bright lights and quaint* stalls. The most famous food is called “Stollen” which is a type of sweet bread containing dried fruits covered in icing sugar or powdered sugar. It’s quite a heavy type of treat, perfect for filling your belly and keeping you warm. This can be enjoyed alongside “Pffeferkuchen” which is a traditional gingerbread. It literally means, “pepper cake” – as any type of new foreign spice was known as “pepper” at the time. It is traditionally round and flat, containing nutmeg, cinnamon, ground cloves, marmalade or jam. Surprisingly, although known as “gingerbread” it rarely actually contains any ginger. In modern times it is often made into heart shapes, with some kind of writing on it.

After all this food, you would need something to wash it down*. The traditional drink is called “Glühwein”, which is known as mulled wine in English. This popular Christmas drink is made of hot wine with various spices such as cloves and cinnamon brewed into it. This drink, for many people, represents Christmas and really does help with the cold.

Nowadays, the Christmas market has long since expanded outside of German speaking countries. In most European cities, as well as some in Canada and the United states, you can find something similar. While many retain the same general image of the German style, each add something traditional from their own culture. If you go to Hungary they have something called a “chimney cake” which is a type of circular dough baked on a pipe. However, if you don’t want to travel so far, in Lisbon the traditional Christmas food is a type of pastry stuffed with fruit. Personally, I would recommend the Manchester Christmas market. Unlike in Madrid where the market is generally confined to the plaza mayor or small areas, the market in Manchester takes up the entire city. There are stalls on most streets in the centre filled with lots of different gift ideas.

In general, even if you don’t end up buying anything (they are quite expensive), Christmas markets are nice places to walk around to cheer you up at this dark time of year.

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