What makes a good Christmas market?
Another weekend, another Christmas market – and as I wandered around this weekend’s festive pitstop on the South Bank, I started to wonder what makes a good Christmas market?
Because much as I love wandering along the Thames, this particular London market is far from the traditional kind. There aren’t that many stalls to browse and while you’ll find a few fun present ideas and handcrafted odds and ends, including the alpaca wool gloves we got for Minnie, the focus is definitely on food.
Rather than sausages in a bun and crepes, you can get duck confit burgers, pad Thai, pizza, falafel and all kinds of other street food treats (and pancakes/waffles too), while there was mulled cider and prosecco along with hot chocolate and mulled wine. And I didn’t see a decorative gingerbread heart anywhere.
It was our third visit to the market – we went to the South Bank Christmas market two years ago and back in 2013 as date nights. This year, we turned up just before lunchtime with our four-year-old in tow to check out the carousel as well as the river views while the sun shone.
Fun? Yes. Delicious? Oh yes. But a classic Christmas market? Not really…
So what do you need to be a Christmas market? Firstly, plenty of tradition it seems – Vienna’s December market is the forerunner of what became the popular Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt, dating back to 1294, Munich traces its history to 1310. The South Bank has just a few years to its name.
What about the size? Berlin alone boasts 70 different markets, Dortmund and Cologne get three to four million visitors and have around 300 stalls. Lincoln has about the same number of sellers, albeit not quite the pedigree or visitor numbers, but there are plenty of smaller Christmas markets.
Winchester, which we visited last week, has around 100 and it’s one of the UK’s best-known. So it’s not just the numbers.
Location? Germany and Austria might have started the trend, but there are plenty in Alsace, Scandinavia, the UK and even the USA, not to mention Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary.
The food then? Well, although we tend to think of the typical Germany creations – bratwurst, lebkuchen, stollen and gluhwein, not to mention those gingerbread hearts – the typical food is usually what’s typical of the region. So you’ll find glogg and moose burgers in Scandinavia, kiachln Advent doughnuts in Innsbruck, bredele biscuits in Strasbourg, torrone nougat in Italy, cinammon chimney cakes in Budapest and the multicultural mix that we sampled in London.
You might find a terrifying Krampus in Austria and a giant goat statue in Sweden, which gets burned down about 50% of the time, listen to carols, see a 50ft Christmas tree with thousands of ornaments in Switzerland or these days, find a massive ferris wheel, an ice rink and other activities.
The products to buy then? At the Christmas markets I went to while living in Germany, I remember a lot of scented candles (and buying a lot of them after a few glasses of gluhwein), handcrafted wooden knick-knacks and baubles. You can certainly still find those but plenty more, including homewares, woollen hats and scarves and there’s usually jewellery somewhere.
And if they’re normally in the historic centre or main square, even that’s not a given. There’s one Christmas market which takes place in a cave, in Valkenburg, The Netherlands, as well as another in an amusement park, at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and the world’s largest Nativity scene on board a boat in Bavaria.
So what makes a Christmas market? Tradition (pick your own), frosty temperatures and twinkling lights seem essential (and something warming to eat and drink) – but for now, I’m happy working my around them and enjoying their differences. And their gluhwein.
What makes a good Christmas market for you?
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