A Brief History of Christmas Markets

Something happens at this time of year all across Northern Europe, especially in Germany.

Pretty little stalls huddle together, filled with glistening decorations, handmade figurines, and local produce.

The sounds of children’s laughter, sleigh bells, and choir singers fill the night air.

Mouth-watering aromas of sizzling bratwurst, gingerbread, and toasted almonds waft through the stalls.

Christmas market in Berlin by Franz Skarbina, 1892
Christmas market in Berlin by Franz Skarbina, 1892

The Christmas markets are here, signaling the beginning of Advent.

For centuries, Christmas markets brought cheer to weary villagers and added a touch of light and color to the long winter nights.

Our story begins in the late Middle Ages in parts of the former Holy Roman Empire.

The precursor to Christmas markets is thought to be Vienna’s Dezembermarkt (December Market), dating back to around 1296. Emperor Albrecht I granted shopkeepers the rights to hold a market for a day or two in early winter so that townspeople could stock up on supplies to last through the cold months.

Medieval Market. Credit Ironchefbalara
Medieval Market. Credit Ironchefbalara

Wintermärkte (winter markets) began to spring up all over Europe.

Over time, local families started setting up stalls to sell baskets, toys, and woodcarvings alongside others selling almonds, roasted chestnuts, and gingerbread. These were often bought as gifts to give away at Christmas.

Berlin boy from the Christmas market by Franz Skarbina, c. 1890
Berlin boy from the Christmas market by Franz Skarbina, c. 1890

It was the winter markets that eventually became known as Christmas Markets—the earliest of which are claimed to be in Germany: Munich in around 1310, Bautzen in 1384, and Frankfurt in 1393.

But Dresden’s Strietzelmarkt may have been the first real Christmas Market, dating from 1434.

Christmas market in Dresden, Germany. Credit LH DD/Dittrich
Christmas market in Dresden, Germany. Credit LH DD/Dittrich

Today, during the lead up to Christmas, most towns of moderate size across the German-speaking world have a Christmas market.

Several cities in the UK, US and Canada also hold Christmas markets, where visitors can enjoy traditional foods like Zwetschgenmännle (figures made of decorated dried plums), Nussknacker (carved Nutcrackers), Gebrannte Mandeln (candied, toasted almonds), and freshly-grilled Bratwurst. Favorite beverages include Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and Eierpunsch (an egg-based warm alcoholic drink).

Zwetschgenmännle (little prune people). Credit Gita22, flickr
Zwetschgenmännle (little prune people). Credit Gita22, flickr
German Christmas cookies and decorations. Credit Till Westermayer, Freiburg
German Christmas cookies and decorations. Credit Till Westermayer, Freiburg

More regional food specialties include Christstollen (Stollen), a sort of egg bread with candied fruit from Saxony, and hot Apfelwein and Frankfurter Bethmännchen from Hesse.

Many other handmade items, toys, books, Christmas tree decorations and ornaments can be found at a Christmas Market.

Christmas markets combine the charm of tradition with the excitement of an open-air marketplace. They help rekindle the enchantment of our childhood memories.

Play a little music to enhance the magic of your Christmas Market experience …

Christmas market in Rostock, Germany. Credit Carsten Pescht
Christmas market in Rostock, Germany. Credit Carsten Pescht
Christmas market in Paderborn, Germany. Credit Harald Selke
Christmas market in Paderborn, Germany. Credit Harald Selke
Christmas market in Konstanz, Germany. Credit LenDog64
Christmas market in Konstanz, Germany. Credit LenDog64
Christmas market in Jena, Thuringia, Germany. Credit Rene Schwietzke
Christmas market in Jena, Thuringia, Germany. Credit Rene Schwietzke
Christmas market in Munich, Germany. Credit Bbb
Christmas market in Munich, Germany. Credit Bbb
Christmas market in Prague, Czech Republic Credit Vlasta Juricek
Christmas market in Prague, Czech Republic Credit Vlasta Juricek
Christmas market in Munich, Germany. Credit Heather Cowper
Christmas market in Munich, Germany. Credit Heather Cowper
Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Credit Wolfgang Scholvien
Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Credit Wolfgang Scholvien
Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Credit visitBerling/Wolfgang Scholvien
Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Credit visitBerling/Wolfgang Scholvien
Christmas Market in Berlin (Richardplatz), Germany Credit VisitBerlin/Wolfgang Scholvien
Christmas Market in Berlin (Richardplatz), Germany Credit VisitBerlin/Wolfgang Scholvien
Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Credit onnola
Christmas market in Berlin, Germany. Credit onnola
Christmas market at Tallinn, Estonia Credit Sergei Zjuganov
Christmas market at Tallinn, Estonia Credit Sergei Zjuganov
Christmas market in Goslar, Germany. Credit Graham Hills
Christmas market in Goslar, Germany. Credit Graham Hills
Christmas market in Krakow, Poland. Credit Garrett Ziegler
Christmas market in Krakow, Poland. Credit Garrett Ziegler
Christmas market in Warsaw, Poland. Credit Francois du Plessis
Christmas market in Warsaw, Poland. Credit Francois du Plessis
Christmas market in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Credit francois
Christmas market in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Credit francois
Christmas market in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Credit francois
Christmas market in Strasbourg, Alsace, France. Credit francois
Christmas market in Stuttgart, Germany. Credit blankdots
Christmas market in Stuttgart, Germany. Credit blankdots
Christmas Market in Stuttgart, Germany. Credit LenDog64
Christmas Market in Stuttgart, Germany. Credit LenDog64
Christmas market in Stockholm Old Town, Sweden. Credit Michael Caven
Christmas market in Stockholm Old Town, Sweden. Credit Michael Caven
Christmas market in Ulm, Germany. Credit Christopher
Christmas market in Ulm, Germany. Credit Christopher
Christmas market in Düsseldorf, Germany Credit Supercarwaar
Christmas market in Düsseldorf, Germany Credit Supercarwaar
Christmas Market in Luxembourg. Credit --Christophe--
Christmas Market in Luxembourg. Credit –Christophe–
Christmas market in Bath, England. Credit Rwendland
Christmas market in Bath, England. Credit Rwendland
Christmas market in Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit Judith, flickr
Christmas market in Copenhagen, Denmark. Credit Judith, flickr
Christmas market in Derby, England. Credit DncnH
Christmas market in Derby, England. Credit DncnH
Christmas market in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit byronv2
Christmas market in Glasgow, Scotland. Credit byronv2
Christmas market in Edinburgh, Scotland. Credit Ross G. Strachan
Christmas market in Edinburgh, Scotland. Credit Ross G. Strachan
Christmas market in Salisbury, England. Credit Anguskirk
Christmas market in Salisbury, England. Credit Anguskirk
Frankfurt Christmas Market in Victoria Square, Birmingham, England. Credit Anneli Salo
Frankfurt Christmas Market in Victoria Square, Birmingham, England. Credit Anneli Salo
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland Christmas Market, London, England. Credit Garry Knight
Hyde Park Winter Wonderland Christmas Market, London, England. Credit Garry Knight
Christmas market in Toronto, Canada. Credit Allen McGregor
Christmas market in Toronto, Canada. Credit Allen McGregor
Christmas Market in Denver, Colorado. Credit Paul Iwancio
Christmas Market in Denver, Colorado. Credit Paul Iwancio

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