Depending on the direction of the wind, I can pick up the scents of cinnamon, fried sausage or some sort of freshly baked good. The strings of wandering minstrels and voices heightened by the copious ingestion of of vin chaud or glühwein make their friendly assault on my ears. The air is biting, nevertheless, I pull off my glove to examine a tiny golden angel. She rests serenely in her tissue-lined box, oblivious to the merrymaking and her own special status at this time of year. Throngs of people gently bump into me on their personal missions down the aisles of wooden cabins glowing with lights, trinkets and so much good cheer it’s hard not to get swept up in it. But then, why would I resist? I made a special trip here just to be a part of it.
I’m at a Christmas market — one of hundreds in Europe — and I don’t mind confessing that I, along with many others have become part a sub culture of what I like to call “Christmas market junkies.”
“Dresden is the oldest, Murten the quaintest, Strasbourg, the most picturesque…I loved the fried potato cakes with garlic sauce in Nuremberg, but the Viennese pastries were to die for. Nuremberg nutcrackers are the a must-have and aren’t those prune-and-paper chimney sweeps of Dresden just adorable? These are just some of the exchanges Christmas market addicts might discuss with each other. Charming anecdotes inevitably follow.
So where and when did the Christmas market begin? The answers are many, general and based on scanty evidence, but one thing is certain, this 600-year-old European tradition and shopping extravaganza shows no signs of succumbing to its modern equivalents.
Some say it began in Northern Europe and then spread south. Others zero in on Nuremberg or Dresden where it supposedly made its first appearance, while others claim Strasbourg is the oldest (at least in France ) with documents recording its existence in the 15th century. Historical records indicate it may have begun as early as the 1300s some time toward the end of November to mark the beginning of Advent. The earliest gatherings were said to have been called St. Nicholas markets and that a St. Nicholas-like figure may have handed out small gifts to deserving children. The markets may have also sold household goods such as pots and utensils as well as foods and gifts. It began as a way for people from remote hamlets to purchase many items at one time. Weary travelers would overnight in inns, then shop and attend church. Choirs would sing while food and drink were generously doled out. Some sources have said it was even a way to attract people to church (or at least to get them as they entered or left services), which is why the markets are typically held in front of and around a church square. Folklore tells of a 16th –century Nuremberg priest complaining of lack of church attendance on the days before Christmas, while congregants preferred instead to spend the afternoons and evenings browsing through the stalls, buying presents and indulging in wine and sweets.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Christmas market in medieval Europe was a main event. People flocked to them, braved bone-chilling temperatures, nudged shoulders with other frenzied shoppers, shared mugs of mulled wine, while mulling over hand-crafted gifts.
And yet, this scene could just as easily describe the Christmas market today. What keeps people coming back year after year, century after century, when so little has changed? Perhaps, it is just that. Little has changed. Christmas markets are still a main event, refreshingly devoid of slick displays and expensive 21st century items. No DVD players, computers, game consoles or anything that rolls off an assembly line. Just a lot of creativity, most of it made the old fashioned way — by hand. Knitted sweaters, cloth dolls, scented candles, homemade jams.
To stave off the cold, one can indulge in glühwein or vin chaud ladled from large vats, quell hunger on anything from smoked salmon to hot sausage, freshly baked buns and spiced cakes to chocolate and candy-apples, or take in a cacophony of wandering entertainment — organ-grinders, carolers or just the hum of happy voices. December is a month that belongs to the Europeans who continue to cherish the Christmas market of yore.
The largest and most famous of the markets today are held in the very towns where they were believed to have originated — Nuremberg, Dresden, Strasbourg — with equally large, traditional markets taking place in Munich,Vienna and Prague.
But one need not travel even that far to experience this festive tradition. Switzerland boasts many Christmas markets. Zurich, Basel, Bern, Murten, Montreux and even closer — Geneva, Lausanne and Carouge.
Here are just a few of the Christmas markets that will be spreading joy around the Geneva area and other areas of Switzerland and Europe. But don’t stop here. Check your local Mairie. Chances are, a Christmas market may be coming to a village near you.
Be sure to check opening times as well, especially for the smaller weekend markets.
Geneva: Place de la Fusterie: December 9 (approximate)
Carouge: December 14, 15, and 16 Carouge Christmas Market
Basel: November 22-December 23 www.baslerweihnacht.ch
Bern December 1-24Bulle: December 20-23
Biel/Bienne: December 6-24
Lausanne: November 25-December 24
Lucerne: November 23-December23
Montreux: November 23 to December 27: www.montreuxnoel.com/
Morges: December 5-9
Neuchatal: December 6-9, rides, festivities. Artisanal market: December 8-16
Nyon: December 9
Martigny: December 13-23
Murten/Morat (my favourite): December 15-16 www.murtentourismus.ch
Sion: December 14: 23
St. Ursanne: (medival charm) December 1-2 http://www.juratourisme.ch
Zurich: November 22, 2012 – January 2, 2013
For more Swiss Christmarket information visit: www.myswitzerland.com
The following sites will provide information; dates, opening hours etc. for Christmas markets across Europe.
in French: Noel.org France, Switzerland, Belgium
In English: Across Europe (including the UK and Eastern Europe) various other countries…and even a few in the USA and Canada: http://www.christmasmarkets.com/
www.marches-noel.org Germany, France, Austria, Switzlerland and Italy
We are a group of international women living in Geneva, Switzerland. If you would like to join the AIWC, please visit our website athttp://www.aiwcgeneva.org/.