Christmas Markets are a popular draw for tourists in Europe. Brochures emphasize the size and variety of the famous large markets in Cologne, Nuremberg, Munich, and Vienna. And if you’re coming from far away for a week of shopping immersed in Christmas charm, the large markets will have it in abundance. But there is something special about the local Christmas Markets that bring a festive light to small German towns in the dark winter nights. I fell in love with one I saw every day in December 2011 during my research year at the Herzog August Bibiothek in Wolfenbuettel.
It was the sixth month of my year in Germany and darkness fell early and cold as I walked back each day from the library toward our tiny apartment. All at once in late November the quiet town square became a flurry of activity as wooden stalls were assembled, children’s fair rides were set up, and a small stage was erected. My husband began to meet me in front of the town hall each evening so that we could see what new developments had taken place in the square where nearly forty stalls, cabins, and rides took shape in a little over a week. 
Soon we were meeting regularly after five for hot spicy glühwein (a warmed brew of mulled wine with a glow that makes you forget the cold) and bratwurst at a cozy open-sided cabin in the center of the market. Sometimes we would run into fellow researchers enjoying the scene on their way home. Fragrant gingerbread, fresh baked pretzels, and hot candied almonds tempted us to linger while listening to the carols sung by a local choirs on the outdoor stage. Bright-faced children rode on the miniature cars or gasped at the fairy-tale cottage where you could catch a glimpse of a wolf, witch, or princess through the frosted windows. I could linger in guilt-free joy, stepping away from my library research on sixteenth-century Germany a little early, to study the Wolfenbuettel market which dates back to 1585. 
One Sunday afternoon we took the train to Goettingen to see their Christmas Market, which was about twice as big as the Wolfenbuettel one, filling two town squares and spilling over into the surrounding streets. Families were out in numbers to enjoy the festivities. Locally-produced food and gift items were more abundant in the Gottingen market but the weekend crowd made it harder to browse. We ducked into a vaulted stone cellar to feast on a delicious Christmas dinner of roast goose, red and green cabbage, and potatoes and dumplings.
The Strassbourg Christmas Market was the king of all the markets we saw, exceeding all others in size and variety, and deservedly part of many tourist Christmas Market itineraries. It was lush with lights and music, and filled an endless series of squares and streets with gluehwein stalls, hot chestnut stands, elaborate gingerbread art, and an abundance of regional crafts such as embroidery and wood carving. The Strassbourg Cathedral overlooked the crowds with a timeless benevolence. 
For a charming market with a small-town feel in Alsace, leave the city for a while and see the old town of Obernai at Christmas. Here you find Pfannekuchen and other delicious foods of Alsace, lots of gifts and souvenirs, and beautiful displays of homemade cookies, table settings, advent wreaths, nativity scenes and miniature villages. Take a break to enjoy the beautiful choir singing at the St. Peter and St. Paul Church.
It was fun to see the different Christmas markets that December, but I’ll always have a soft spot for the market in Wolfenbuettel which gave us a warm place to linger on the cold walk home.
For the armchair traveler, sit back with a glass of gluehwein (recipe link #4 below), a gingerbread cookie, and your laptop and browse through the magical scenes of Christmas markets on Google Images and YouTube. Guete Reise, Happy Traveling, and Bon Voyage!
- Wolfenbuettel Weihnachtsmarkt website: http://www.wolfenbuettel.de/index.php?NavID=2093.723&La=1
- Weihnachtsmaerkte in Deutschland: http://www.weihnachtsmaerkte-in-deutschland.de/weihnachtsmarkt-in-wolfenbuettel.html
- See the Christmas Market in Strassbourg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkAzzbKeXeA
- Make your own Gluehwein: http://wine-tasting-reviews.com/winefoodpairing/wine-cocktails-recipes/322-german-gluehwein.html
- By the way, the above page includes a very cute video called: “German Christmas 101: Know Your Gluhwein.” If you want to go straight to it, try: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xifjp18CUfE