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One of those damned Germanic over-long compound nouns. It means Christmas market. There are synonyms in German, too: Christkindlmarkt is one, though that seems to be used more outside Germany, being used for Christmas markets in Innsbrücke, Salzburg and the USA, but also for the München market in Marienplatz, and for a lot of online Christmas shops.

When it comes to Christmas markets, Germans--and some Austrians--do it better and with a lot more style.

You want to see cheap Christmas tat? Go to an American shopping mall and look around. You want to see expensive, badly-made Christmas tat? go to a British shopping mall. You think you can find Christmas cheer in a centrally-heated temple to commercialism?

You want to see pretty lights and carved toys, eat gingerbread hearts, and consume spicy warming alcoholic drinks while listening to a choir singing carols? And do it outside in the freezing cold, dressed in boots and scarves and gloves, with your breath freezing in the sharp, frosty air? Yes, you do. You know you do! Go to any of the main German towns from the end of November and head for the main square, or ask a taxi to take you to the Weihnachtsmarkt.

For everyone who is getting increasingly disillusioned about the overly-commercial nature of Christmas, these fairs are an effective antidote. They are, in almost every case, sponsored by the local town council and are part commercial enterprise and part tourist attraction. Everyone goes along. It becomes part of the evening activities: a visit to the fair and then a meal or some beers in a warm, fuggy bar or restaurant.

Usually the market is held in the main square of town, in front of the big church. The council puts a huge Christmas tree in a prominent position and adds lights to the tree, the surrounding buildings and often the space above the market stalls as well. These are not garish giant Santa figures with cartoon reindeer jumping through hoops, but pretty pinpoints, reminiscent of stars in a bright sky. Some towns have three four, or even more markets. It's a big deal in Germany.

Despite the ravages of war, many German towns have retained their medieval centres: the Altstadt, or old town. Nürnberg is perhaps the most perfect example of this conjunction of old and new. You fly into a modern airport or arrive on the ICE, pass through town on a new tramway system and when you walk out of the tram, you step back 500 years into a warren of narrow streets with shops set at crazy angles and steep roofs that seem to have come straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen story.

Nürnberg was my first Christmas market. It is the biggest and best in Germany, and that means the best in the world. I will always remember the smells, the noise, the unusual stalls with wonderful nativity sets in all styles and sizes, beautiful pyramid decorations, warm, gingerbread hearts and powerful Glühwein. I have always liked Germany and the German people, but the atmosphere and simple beauty of that weekend started a kind of love affair with the place.

smartalix says Cologne always had a pretty but modernized Weihnachtsmarkt for my taste. Stuttgart's is killer, as is Munich. Wiesbaden's is cute, too. I found that the southern cities have the more traditional markets, and the northern the most "modern." Tying into their respective regional characters, actually.

Many years later, I visited Frankfurt on business in early December. Despite what people may tell you, business trips are not much fun. Hotels, and more hotels. Too much rich food with too much alcohol and too little sleep. Airports, hotels and shopping malls are the same everywhere. Even the shops and the products they sell are standardised. There's a kind of homogenised, sterile style that masquerades as modern international style.

To cut a long story short, I saw signs to the Weihnachtsmarkt and persuaded my colleagues to go along. It was one of the best trips we ever made. Yes we got drunk, but that was partly because the atmosphere made us light-headed. Yes we got cold, but the Glühwein warmed us up. More than that, we talked about our own Christmas experiences. We went back to our respective childhoods, and reflected a little on modern Christmasses.

In particular, the better Weihnachtsmarkt breaks away from that modern internationalism by bringing local artisans into the picture. One year I bought a pyramid decoration for about $100. We brought it out yesterday, the first Sunday of Advent, as we do every year. It's a charming little thing, made from different woods including maple, oak and chestnut all delicately painted and carefully polished, with the nativity scene in the middle. That is surrounded by a ring of shepherds, kings, camels and sheep. The ring is attached to a series of wooden vanes. When you light the candles, hot air drives the vanes around like a windmill, and the shepherds and Kings parade past the Holy family. It's a simple thing, but carefully made and is an effective reminder of what Christmas is supposed to be about.

It's hard to say why these markets are so enjoyable, but I think it boils down to the atmosphere: friendly, peaceful, happy, without the over-jolly, forced 'Christmas spirit' you find in more commercial places. Combine that with unusual products, beautiful settings and an indefinable sense of anticipation that comes from frosty air, carols and sparkly lights. It contrasts strongly with the malls in the adjacent town centres where you are continuously assaulted with messages telling you that you can only love your friends and family if you buy, buy, buy.

Imagine, then, my feelings on visiting the main market in Köln last week, and discovering that it was evolving into something more like the Anglo idea of Christmas, with many near-identical stalls selling mass-produced 'craft-fayre' knick-knacks.

The candles that go with my pyramid decoration are of a specific shape and colour. They are fairly standard in Germany, but hard to find in the UK, where I live, so I like to find an excuse to visit one of the main German towns in the weeks before Christmas. I take the opportunity to stock up on the candles and buy Lebkuchen for the children; hence my trip to Köln. In the main Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt, there was only one stall selling these candles. I had expected to find half a dozen.

Don't get me wrong, it was a wonderful setting. Köln Dom, or cathedral is the most magnificent gothic cathedral in the world, with twin towers stretching into the night sky. The stonework is filthy, but the authorities are slowly cleaning it up and in the daytime it is easy to appreciate the delicate tracery of the structure, as daylight seeps through the massive stone blocks and picks out the intricate carvings and crenellations. It has huge, ornate flying buttresses, towering columns and plunging precipices. The market is held in the square directly in front of the Dom, and the lights and stalls are jolly enough, but the carols have been replaced by a rather inferior Oasis "tribute" band and the goods on show are less artisanal, more international.

I asked around, and found that there are now exhibition companies whose main business is setting up a Christmas market for town councils. It shows. Like I said, each stall was identical to its neighbour, and I am sure I have seen the same products on sale in "craft fairs" and "farmersí markets" in London, San Francisco and even Bangkok.

So the forces of commercialism are coming to German Christmas markets. Get in there and find the good ones while you still can. The best ones remain in the older, medieval towns like Nürnberg, Heidelberg, Tübingen, but there are also good ones in the larger towns such as Frankfurt and München.

These commercial companies are international. I have already seen them advertising to local towns to set up these markets in France and the UK. So if you live in these countries, you may well find that next year will bring a "Traditional German Christmas market" to your town. Don't believe them. The idea is a good one, but the execution is far from perfect. I have seen it in Köln, and it is not good.

The German Tourist agency has picked up on these markets, and has a site devoted specifically to telling foreigners about them. I started writing this, and then, when nearly finished, thought I ought to look for more info on the web. There is a lot of information out there. I probably ought to have looked before writing, but here are some links you may find helpful.

  • http://www.germany-christmas-market.org.uk/index1.htm
  • http://www.weihnachtsmarkt-deutschland.de/
  • http://www.weihnachtsmarkt.de/
  • http://www.weihnachtsmarkt.co.at/
  • http://www.weihnachtsmarkt.weihnachten-info.de/
  • http://www.schwabingerweihnachtsmarkt.de/

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