Christmas Markets are celebrated across Europe, starting in late November and ending a few days after Christmas. Although we tend to think of Christmas as a children’s holiday, I’ve found there are far more adults than kids whenever I’ve gone to the Hamburg Christmas market, as it provides a great excuse to get out of the house, drink mulled wine, chat with friends and do a little a Christmas shopping.
Visiting Hamburg, Germany’s Christmas Market
Christmas here is a twinkling respite from the gloomy days of dwindling sunlight, and Hamburgers make the most of it. Although the official starting date is the Monday before Advent, the first Winter Market in Hamburg opens in early November, complete with an Ice ‘bahn’ for skaters.
December 6th is Nikolaustag or St Nikolas Day, when children leave their shoes outside their doors. If they have been good, they’re filled with chocolate in the morning. In the south of Germany and Austria naughty children have a nasty run in with Krampus.
German Christmas market festivities continue all month with Der Adventskranz, or Advent Wreath, laid flat holding four candles, one for each Sunday of Advent. My co-workers tell me that each Sunday is celebrated with caroling and cookies.
The Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas Markets (although some are billed as Christmärkte or Wintermärkte) are open every day and are a great way for adults to get in on the fun usually monopolized by kids. It seems like in nearly every public square in Hamburg, wooden stalls spring up, covered in lights and red trim. You’ll also find carolers, and plenty of stalls selling gifts and decorations.
The best time to visit is, of course, after dark! Fortunately, it starts getting dark around 4 in December, so even small children can enjoy the festivities. While Hamburg is usually reasonably mild during December considering the latitude, you’ll want to bundle up and prepare to drink some hot chocolate or Glühwein (hot mulled wine) to keep you warm.
Although most of the Christmas Markets have similar stalls, some do have themes like Maritime, as well as Scandinavian and British for homesick expats. The Museum of Ethnology is holding a weekend long event with celebrations from around the world, and the nearby town of Lüneburg holds a historical market with venders in costume and a Märchenmeile (fairy mile).
Even if you can’t visit more than one or two, all of them are magical enough to leave even the grumpiest of grinches overcome with nostalgia and Christmas Spirit.
Although they may have separate names and be on different streets, many of the markets sprawl over into each other, so you can walk through several without realizing it. If you only have one night to enjoy the festivities in Hamburg, I’d recommend heading straight for the Rathaus (this is City Hall, literally ‘government house.’ Any comparison between the government and rats is purely coincidental). Hamburg’s Rathaus is a grand building built in the late 1800s and is still the seat of Hamburg’s senate and parliament. It provides a picturesque backdrop to one of the busiest and most popular markets in the city.
Two years ago, we saw Santa in his sleigh appear above the stalls, he spoke to the crowd, and then took off and his firework powered sleigh carried him overhead. Then everyone sang Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, in English, while a couple spontaneously started swing dancing. It’s that kind of atmosphere.
From the Rathaus you can wander over to the Binnenalster, the smaller of two man-made lakes in the center of Hamburg. The Rathaus is in the downtown and financial center of the city, and department stores and shopping districts gladly take the opportunity to get in on the spirit (and holiday shopping). Neuer Wall is where you can find the high end designers and luxury retailers. Every year, a huge christmas tree is installed on a platform in the lake. There are also a few small carnival rides, especially traditional carousels.
Every festival I’ve attended in Germany has the ubiquitous sausages and pilsner, but at Christmas markets you’ll also find crepes, lebkuchen (a German cousin of gingerbread) hearts, and plenty of sweets like Marzipan and these tools made out of chocolate.
Glühwein is served in ceramic mugs you pay a few euro deposit for which you’ll get back when you return your mugs. You’ll also be able to find other hot drinks, like in hot chocolate (with peppermint schnapps if you so desire) served similarly.
Christmas Markets will be one of the things I miss the most about Germany when I move back to the States. While Christmas markets have started popping up in some towns with large populations of German descendants, they are still missing the size, fame and firework powered Santas of the ones in Germany.
This post was written by Claire of World Traveler in Training. Originally from North Delaware, Claire moved to Germany in February 2012 for a job at the University of Hamburg. Her parents are expats from the UK, so she grew up traveling quite a bit. She occasionally finds herself traveling for work, visiting destinations as varied as Berlin and Kathmandu. When not working, she and her husband try to take long weekends trips across Europe and blog about it along the way.