“Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn’t come from a store.” ______________Dr. Seuss
Christmas Markets: a European Tradition
Remember what it was like as a child waiting for Christmas? That feeling when you first heard the carols, smelled the cookies and maybe worked on your letter to Santa, and then, snowflakes decided to wander by your window, and you got that feeling in the pit of your stomach that rose up through your lungs and gently twisted at your heart strings. That feeling came again when the tree was dragged into the house accompanied by the cold outside air and then, the smell of pine engulfed your living room. Hearing “Silent Night” for the first time that season, your chest cavity swelled with the anticipation and glow that is Christmas. That feeling can be hard to recapture as an adult. At Christmas, adults are tied-up with preparations for holiday meals, guests, shopping, working at a job, and most importantly, making sure the children get their fill of Christmas memories to cherish. That Christmas glow, that emotion, settles when there is peace and the mind is free of the muddle of everyday chores and reminders. Generally, the concept of free-time returns at retirement. Perhaps, the spirit can be recaptured for us. Afterall, we have cached a swell of memories from Christmas’ past to help conjure the glow, the warmth, the peace, the joy.
It is December. The Christmas markets of Europe have officially opened. For me, adventuring in a European Christmas market assures a dose of Christmas spirit. With the onset of winter in the grey short days of December, the Christmas markets shed their light and sparkle in the cobbled, old squares and ornate town halls of the august cities of the continent. Believed to be of German origin, there is a long history of open-air markets in the month of the solstice long before Christianity was ensconced in Europe and Christmas ruled December. Over the centuries, the borders of countries changed often and with them cultures and customs melded. Today almost every major European city rolls out a Christmas festival in the medieval market squares in front of the ancient architectural gems that are their town halls, burgher mansions, clock towers and cathedrals.
The markets usually open the first week of Advent or on the feast of St. Nicholas (December 6). In Germany you will find the markets named Christkindlmärkt, Christkindlesmärkt, or the Christkindlmärket, (all literally translate to the Christ Child Market) as well as the Weihnachtsmärkt (Weihnach is Christmas in German). In France, it’s the Marché de Noël; in Poland, the Targ Bożegonarodzeniego (Boże Narodzenia is the Polish expression for Christmas and Targ is outdoor market).
My initiation into the Christmas market culture was during the 1970’s when I worked as a flight attendant with an international charter airline. We spent long stretches of time in Frankfurt, Germany in the winter. December in Frankfurt was festive and enchanting and every flight attendant I know still has fond memories of the Weihnachtsmärkt in the old town square, the Römerberg, of Frankfurt. Today, we still talk about those days in airline alumni facebook groups. It was a time when the snow could be counted on to cover the walks in December, it was always frosty cold, the lights had the most sparkle, and the food was aromatic and inviting.
Over the years, I had shared these memories ad nauseam with my husband, Greg. As we decorated the Christmas tree and the ornaments came out of the box, I told the story of how this or that ornament came from the Christkindlmärkt in Frankfurt. It was an inconsolable disaster if a vintage German decoration that I had ferried over in a packed suitcase in 1976 should happen to break or shatter. And they did. Only a few cherished vestiges remain from those days.
Here in Krakow, our current hometown, the preparations for the opening of the Christmas market began early in November. The booths were set up in phases with new features and decorations appearing every week. At the Rynek (the Rynek Główny is the main market square in Kraków), the market opened officially on Friday, November 27, which is Black Friday in the States. The culture of Black Friday seems an unsuitable event for advancing Christmas spirit. Retirement in Europe releases us from the compulsion of shopping and bargains heralded from the other side of the pond.
The Targ Bożegonarodzeniego is the biggest Christmas market in Poland. It winds and creeps through the entire Rynek Główny, the largest medieval square in Europe, around the ancient Sukiennca (a beautiful arched honey-colored structure that used to be a cloth market in earlier times). The fair is fully equipped with an outdoor performance stage and large projection screen as well as a myriad of hut-like stalls, street food venues and scores of live fir trees strung with white lights. The centerpiece is the large tree that stands right in front of the basilica of St. Mary. It is strung in a different style every year and from the opinions I’ve heard from native Krakowians, this year’s centerpiece tree is pretty special.
The festively decorated trade stalls are piled and hung with Christmas decorations, sparkling lights, winter hats, mittens and socks, scarves, fleecy slippers, jewelry, ceramics, and traditional sweets. There are hearty street foods and mulled hot drinks accompanied by the strains of holiday songs from the assembled outdoor stage or from groups of street musicians. There is a happy enviving mood walking outdoors through the rows of stalls lit with twinkling lights and cheered with the smell of sizzling food, cloves, cinnamons and friendly voices. Christmas spirit, that elusive feeling of bright fairy-tale joy and nostalgia, is hard to capture at a mall but it is certainly alive and well here in this small-scale medieval fantasy marketplace.
As one of the highlights of our winters on the European continent, we had anticipated Christmas market side trips, by train, to German and Polish cities. Our tour of the Christmas markets this year started here in Kraków. We then planned to travel to Gdansk to visit friends, tour the city and stroll the Christmas market. For the premier visit to a German market, we chose Munich, where there were at least 15 different markets, five of which were billed as top-notch. And Munich was close to the Bavarian Alps so we might actually have snow on the ground as I remembered it in Germany in the old days. There was not a flake of snow here in Kraków. Snow at Christmas in Europe seems like it should be a ‘no brainer’ but we are living in the midst of a changing climate and in the year of an El Niño. Today feels like an October day just 10 days before Christmas. But the spirit of Christmas can be recaptured by a couple of senior citizens even on a misty warm day in December.
To Be Continued: Munich and the Weihnachtsmärkets … not quite what I remember.