christmas market (traditional christkindlsmarkt in Germany)

Dashing through the snow

In a one-horse, open sleigh

O’er the fields we go

Laughing all the way!

Bells on bobtail ring

Making spirits bright

What fun it is to ride and sing

A sleighing song, tonight!

Ah, Jingle Bells. Hard as it is to believe, the holidays are right around the corner, and I’m getting excited! Whether you’re about Christmas trees and Advent calendars, or dreidels and menorahs, the holidays tend to be special for all of us, full of reminiscing about the past, enjoying the present, and hoping for the future. It’s a time of family, and kindness; of keeping traditions and starting new ones. With that, I’d like to share one of my more recent holiday traditions: the Christkindlmarket!

Before I dive in further, I should mention I’m Catholic, so I celebrate Christmas and have corresponding traditions. If this isn’t your holiday of choice, you might be thinking, “Next article.” Not so fast! I think you’re going to want to stick around for this one. Why? Because, a Christkindlmarket is as much about food as it is about the holidays. For every carol sung or Nativity scene on sale, there’s a food booth worthy of your time, your money, and your tastebuds. Now, to adequately address the question asked in the headline, I’m going to discuss the origins of the Christkindlmarket, which involves some Christian stuff. This is purely to inform. You know, ‘cause learning is fun. Just know, you don’t have to celebrate Christmas to enjoy a Christkindlmarket. You just have to be hungry!

If you’re like the 2005 version of me, you may never have heard of a Christkindlmarket. Lucky for you, I’m about to open your eyes to a great food festival that can turn the fall dark and drearies into winter warmth and wonder. A German holiday tradition over 400 years old (dating to the mid-16th century), many accounts say one of the longest-running, and most famous Christkindlmarkets is held in Nuremberg, Germany. This “market of the Christ Child,” assembled town craftsmen to Nuremberg’s Main Market Square during the four weeks prior to Christmas (Advent) to display and sell their goods. And while the Christ Child has great significance for all Christians, there’s added significance to the Germans.

Unless you know a lot about German culture, I’m about to blow your mind. In Germany, the main figure who delivers presents to kids is not Santa Claus, but rather, the Christkind. What does “Christkind” mean? Christ Child. That’s right! Apparently, during the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther sought to de-emphasize the role of saints in the Catholic Church. At Christmas, this meant shifting focus away from St. Nicholas and placing it back on Christ. Instead of getting rid of the concept of a benevolent gift-giver entirely, he proposed Christ as the true giver of gifts. Over time, Germans, both Protestant and Catholic, adopted the concept of the Christkind as gift-giver, thus putting the “Christ” back in “Christmas,” as you might say today. And though the Christkind has changed appearance from the traditional male baby Jesus, to a female angel, it remains an important figure to the festival.

Christmas market or Christkindlsmarkt

Shutterstock

Today, you can find Christkindlmarket celebrations in cities across Europe, and even in the United States. As a Chicago guy, I’m lucky. We have two Christkindlmarkets that start the Friday before Thanksgiving, and wrap up on Christmas Eve. One takes place downtown, in Daley Plaza, and the other takes place in the southwest suburb of Naperville. With a large assortment of hand-crafted goods, you can find loads of unique, authentic, holiday gifts for purchase. From ornaments, to Nativities, to nutcrackers, and even cuckoo clocks, you’ll be amazed at what you can find at the Christkindlmarket. Often, the artisans and craftspeople will adorn their booths, packed tightly and arranged side by side, with signs reflecting their countries of origin. Many hail from Germany or Austria and return, year after year, to be a part of the festivities. If you like genuine, hand-crafted merchandise, you’ll love what you encounter, and visiting will be well worth it. This isn’t why I go, though. I go because I like German food (my name is Stegeman, after all) and they have tons of it. More than just sausage and beer, here are some of my recommendations:

Schnitzel Sandwiches

Breaded cutlets of meat placed between two slices of bread? You had me at “breaded cutlets of meat.” As far as festival/street food goes, this one is the real deal. Throw some brown mustard on there, and you’ll be good to snack while you walk—always a good idea when you’re out in the cold.

Potato Pancakes

Alright, I know I just told you that walking while you eat is a good idea when you’re cold. Potato pancakes are an exception. Usually coming three or four to a serving, with sides of applesauce and sour cream, you’ll likely need to post up briefly to enjoy these with a fork and knife. Don’t worry, they’re worth it!

Strudel

Flaky pastry? Warm fruit filling? Hand-held? No utensil required? Thank you, sir, may I have another!? Strudel is phenomenal. You might be tempted to try cherry, but I prefer the traditional apple variety. My favorite vendor comes from Austria and knows a thing or two about making pastries.

Bavarian Nuts

These tiny morsels of pure magnificence have ensured several same-season return-trips to the Christkindlmarket for me. Plentiful nut varieties roasted with numerous flavorings keep the taste buds tempted and tantalized all season long. My go-to? Cinnamon sugar almonds. The pecans are also very good!

Hot Pretzels

Warm, egg-washed carbs with salt and mustard. They’re simple, but oh-so-good.

Gluhwein

I have a confession to make: I don’t really like gluhwein. But I still recommend it because it’s one of those iconic things worth trying. If you don’t like it, you’re able to say what’s up. If you do like it, well, you’re welcome! This warm, mulled wine is a favorite of many, and sure helps keep your body warm and spirits high. Plus, in Chicago, it’s served in a cool souvenir mug worth collecting.

Bratwurst

You know how I said the Christkindlmarket is more than brats and beer? Well, it is. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t indulge in some brats and beer. It’s a German food festival, for goodness sake! Plus, the sauerkraut may be one of the few ways for you to ingest a vegetable. For your health!

Beer

Germany is known for its beer. If you happen to be thirsty, and of age, partake in the culture and crack one open. Will it warm you like the gluhwein? Probably not. Will it pair nicely with your brat and hot pretzel. Indubitably.

Crepes

I know what you’re thinking: “Crepes are French.” Yes, they are. But France and Germany share a border, and in that region have inspired each other culturally, linguistically, and culinarily, so I try not to overthink it—especially when my cravings and my stomach are at stake! It’s cool to see these masters of their craft make such heavenly thin pancakes. Plus, they can be made savory or sweet, depending on the stage of your meal or your mood. Versatility is always appreciated.

Hot Cocoa

As I mentioned, I’m not a big gluhwein guy. So, when it’s below-freezing, a warm beverage is often just what the doctor ordered (don’t tell my doctor I’m eating all this stuff—he’d likely not approve!). Nothing too unique here. Just good old-fashioned chocolate goodness.

There you have it! This holiday season, I strongly encourage you to check out a Christkindlmarket. Hopefully you have one that’s accessible. If not, check out some recipes for the recommended food items above, and make your own Christkindlmarket-inspired meal for a holiday gathering sure to be remembered. May your holiday season be filled with peace, joy, love, and hope.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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