Old World Christmas

The Prague Post

Strolling through Europe’s famous open-air marketplaces

‘Tis the season for friends, family, food and shopping. What is often looked at as a needless chore by many can be transformed into an entertaining holiday ritual. Where you go to purchase gifts often reflects the relative enjoyment of the task. Being in central Europe gives you the opportunity to enjoy the time-honored tradition of the Christmas market. Prague and the Czech Republic have many such markets to browse, however this year let’s visit two of our neighbors to see what they have on offer.

First, we cross the border into Germany for a visit to Dresden and their Striezelmarkt. This is one of the country’s oldest documented markets, stretching back to the reign of Friedrich II in 1434. That first year it was held on Altmarkt Square the Monday after Christmas. It’s grown a bit, now running for more than four weeks and offering 250 booths. An interesting factoid about this market is that its name originally came from a type of cake popularly sold each year at the market. The StrUzel, now more commonly called Stollen, is a type of fruitcake. True Dresden Stollen is identified by a special seal depicting their famous king August the Strong. The special shape is supposed to look the entrance to a mine, in honor of the city’s silver mining tradition. This cake is always a centerpiece of the market.

“The Stollen Feast is one of the highlights of the market because a four-ton Stollen will be brought to the market and served there,” says Peggy Krause of the Dresden-Werbung und Tourismus GmbH PR Department.

Krause also recommends visiting any of the booths that sell Stollen or GlUhwein, crafts from the regions of Lausitz or Thuringia and booths that sell the region’s famous gingerbread, Pulsnitzer Pfefferkuchen.

Moving farther west into Germany brings us to Munich. Normally known for a certain beer festival held each year, their Christmas markets are a more atmospheric reason to visit the city. While the history of the Christkindlmarkt dates back to the 14th century, since the 1970’s it’s been held in a special part of the city.

“When darkness falls and the snow on the roofs of the market stalls begin to sparkle in a glowing sea of fairy lights, it is then the atmosphere of the market in the central square of Marienplatz is its most enchanting,” says Gabriele Papke, press officer for Munich Tourism.

Food is of course featured heavily and Papke recommends indulging in sweetmeats such as Lebkuchen and Zwetschgenmanderl, mulled wine and mead and traditional German sweets such as PfeffernUsse or Magenbrot cake. Another special tradition at the Christkindlmarkt is the Kripperlmarkt, which literally means “market of the holy manager.”

“It features displays of handicraft figures portraying scenes from the Nativity,” says Papke. “It’s thought to be one of the largest of its kind in Germany.”

Moving towards our more southerly neighbor, Austria offers special seasonal joys in both Vienna and Salzburg. Vienna’s Krippenmarkt dates back to 1298. At the time it was a privilege to be allowed to hold such a market. Now the city boats 21 official Advent markets selling an array of crafts and culinary treats.

“The classic event is the Vienna Christmas Market in front of city hall with 143 booths,” says Eva Draxler with WeinTourismus.

Draxler recommends other not-to-miss markets like the Culture and Christmas market at SchOnbrunn Palace and the Old Viennese Christmas Market at Freyung. And it seems the Viennese has taken the hot punch tradition to a whole new level.

“About 200 booths serve around 10,000 liters of the heartwarming beverage every day,” says Draxler. “Flavors range from berry, apple and orange to jelly bear, chocolate coconut and tropical.”

Salzburg is a picturesque city in any season, but the traditional decorations of Christmas truly bring it alive.

“Perhaps there are other, more famous Christmas markets in the world,” says Maria Altendorfer, press officer for the Salzburg City Tourist Office. “None however, is held against a more impressive backdrop than the Salzburg Christmas Market. The Baroque Cathedral reigns majestically, keeping a watchful eye on the hustle and bustle below.”

Altendorfer says many of the crafts displayed here are created especially for the Christmas market. Not-to-miss items include polished and painted glass, lanterns, pewter dishes and ceramics. And since this is a Christmas market, their elegant Christmas ornaments are a true item to treasure.

Are you here to shop or to eat? It’s hard to know the true reason for visiting markets, and Salzburg won’t disappoint with hot sausages, chestnuts, tea, punch, mulled wine and gingerbread.

So gather friends and family for a new holiday tradition – Christmas shopping and eating, old-world style!