Twenty-one years ago, I landed in Germany for the first time, my hotel a stone’s throw from the Cologne Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). It was a business trip and I was on my own that first jet-lagged evening so I set out to explore the Weihnachtsmarkt solo. Magical, mesmerizing, welcoming, and cozy, I was thrilled with this new cultural discovery. And that was before I had even heard of Glühwein, the hot mulled wine that warms up your insides. It is delicious, comes in a real mug, (as opposed to a styrofoam cup), and you get a refund when you return it. The colder it is outside, the better it tastes!
After I moved to Germany, my subsequent visits to the Weihnachtsmarkt were spent searching for Nutcrackers. Dozens of them. I am not kidding. My mother was so enchanted by the German Nutcrackers that she felt everyone in the family and extended family needed to have one – the nurse Nutcracker, the teacher, the professor, the St. Nicholas Nutcracker, you name it, she wanted it. Amazingly, the booth owners were very patient and accommodating with her every Nutcracker wish. Here is a place where you feel very wanted as a tourist because you and your business are genuinely welcome. What’s more, Nutcrackers you will find there are made in Germany (I have seen many sold in stores which are made in Asia). As well, you will find ornaments, hand-knit sweaters, scarves, socks, home-made candles, jewelry, kids toys and scores of other unique and hand-crafted holiday gifts or keepsakes. For the little ones, there are kiddy carousels, Waffles and Lebkuchen Herzen (gingerbread cookies on a ribbon).
When it’s time to eat, Reibekuchen is my favorite. It is a crispy potato pancake served with (or without) Apfelmousse, a delicate apple sauce, and it is just plain yummy. If you are like me and normally don’t do deep fried, you may want to make an exception for this. Just grab an extra napkin to soak up some grease and enjoy. As you will see and smell, there are so many tasty dishes to try at the Weihnachtsmarkt, make sure you bring an appetite and lots of time to mill about, see what’s offered and begin sampling the dishes!
Once you have visited your nearest Christmas Market, you may want to explore others as well. For example, in Siegburg, which is not far from Cologne, there is a medieval Christmas Market lit up at night with torches. In Baden Baden, we enjoyed the living manger at the foot of the Christmas Market. But it really doesn’t matter where in Germany you happen to find yourself, Christmas Markets are a steadfast tradition and you will find them everywhere, each one different but enchanting. They are normally open from 10 a.m. to about 8 or 9 p.m., and are especially romantic and lovely after dark with all the lights aglow. They have nothing in common with power shopping, holiday sales or shopping malls, but are a great place to meet with friends, relax and get into the Christmas spirit!