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I’m a die-hard Christmas market fan, but Deidesheim’s festive storybook atmosphere is merely the superficial appeal.

It’s the town’s past: the sense of place and history that I feel most strongly when I stop to really look at the old houses. Or listen to the chefs barking at each other in the guttural dialect of Pfälzisch as they cook by spitting meat into schwenkers – wrought iron grills swaying over the flames. There is a feeling that these scenes are set from medieval times.

Wooden Christmas decorations for sale at Dresden striezelmarkt. Alamy

Felix Braun, an academic whose family has owned a hobby vineyard in the area for nearly 100 years, remembers going to his grandfather’s house on weekends as a child.

“The highlight of winter was when he would take me to the Christmas markets. He taught me to carve wood in his workshop, and we always looked for the carvings in the market.

“When I carry my own children today, it reminds me of him; while other markets have become so commercial, this one still feels real, that’s the charm.”


Christmas decorations and teddy bears adorn the Christmas market area in Strasbourg, France. Alamy

Dr. Dirk Spennemann, Associate Professor of Cultural Heritage Management at Australia’s Charles Sturt University and a connoisseur of the Christmas market, explains the strong link to the German psyche. “Culturally, Christmas markets have long provided a welcome escape from the cold, wintry run-up to Christmas,” he says.

“It is the perfect place to socialize and spend a great evening; Christmas markets also evoke childhood memories of tradition, elevating the meaning beyond just a place to buy decorations and gifts.

Also, initially, there were no decorations, just the trade of goods and food in the wintermärktes found in the Middle Ages in German-speaking areas of Europe, such as the Dezembermarkt in Vienna, dating from around 1296.

There is only a vague indication of when Christmas items came onto the scene, with Dresden’s strietzelmarkt making the strongest claim to being the “first” Christmas market to specifically sell gifts: on Christmas Eve 1434, a couple of centuries later. the city was established. .

Dresdener Christstollen for sale: A traditional German Christmas bread made up of dried fruits, spices and marzipan, topped with powdered sugar. Alamy

Given that markets have been around for over seven centuries, it is inevitable that many have been politicized for decades, not to mention monetized. The Nazis filled Advent calendars with propaganda, and the atheist German Democratic Republic made market woodcarvers rename their angels after jahresendflügelfigur (winged figurines at the end of the year).

Fake Bavarian market chalets have sprouted from the United States to India, spruiking electronic Santas and the like. In the UK, the number of Christmas markets tripled from around 30 in 2007 to over 100 in 2017.

But there’s nothing like the original Weihnachtsmarkt scene: at least that’s what the Germans say.

My husband’s favorite markets are in his own hometown of Höhr-Grenzhausen, two hours away; Dr. Spennemann enjoys ‘less touristy’ markets such as Mainz and Würzburg. He also rates Frankfurt and Dresden for larger markets.

The traditional Montreux Noël market in Einsiedeln, Switzerland.

Deidesheim has my heart. But just to be controversial, I’m going to say that my favorite Christmas market of all time is not the German one but the French one.

The Strasbourg Marché de Noël is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe (dating back to 1570) and is bursting with charm. A snowball’s throw from the German border, France and Germany have long battled for control of Strasbourg. Who could blame them, especially in December when swathes of fairy lights and flakes of snow further enhance the flirtiest of French cities?

On a recent visit, standing among the multitude of markets and stalls, our little family of four paused for a warm headache (Gingerbread). Wedged between French carolers in Santa hats and nuns selling hand-sewn figurines, our snack quartet must have resembled a bit of a hungry nativity scene.

Chris Fundell, head of marketing for Avalon Waterways, defends the Strasbourg markets as favourites, while responding that “every market has its own special charm and unique atmosphere”. Like many river cruise operators, Avalon offers a seven-day “Christmas on the Danube” voyage designed to showcase the pearls of festive Central Europe, including visits to the markets of Vienna, Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg.

The Christmas market in Salzburg, Austria, elevation 424 meters. A white Christmas is only guaranteed at altitudes above 1850m.

At Viking, the eight-day ‘Christmas on the Rhine’ from Basel to Amsterdam includes markets in Cologne and Vienna. Uniworld’s 11-Day ‘Enchanting Christmas’ & The New Year’s Cruise itinerary explores the markets of Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia with Christmas Eve in Passau. The riverboat welcomes the New Year in Budapest.

Whether explored by waterway or overland, Christmas markets are just one element of a December trip to Europe. Especially if you head over to Switzerland to atmospheric Einsiedeln during its 10-day Christmas market, or to Montreux’s Noël market with its zip-line flying Santa’s sleigh.

After taking in the views, you are ideally located close to the Alps for the true bucket list experience: a white Christmas. Preferably enjoyed on skis.

Most of Europe is snow-free at Christmas, so combining a chocolate-box alpine town and guaranteed skiing is not a given.

Val-d’Isère in France is an ideal destination if you want snow with your Christmas celebrations. Val d’Isere Tourism

“In European ski areas, the original towns are often in the valley bottoms,” explains Sarah Plaskitt, owner of Scout, which specializes in boutique ski holidays. Therefore, purpose-built ski towns (especially in France) are located higher up on mountain plateaus, where snow falls early. Since many of these resorts were built in the 1970s, this is unfortunately not always where the historic buildings are.

A few well-chosen locations offer the jackpot: a charming traditional high-altitude town. Just aim for more than 1850 meters when traveling in December, and you should be right.

In France, Val-d’Isère is the place to plant poles (stay at the 2,551m Le Refuge de Solaise, France’s oldest cable car station, now a sophisticated hotel) or head to the 1850 village of Courchevel.

In Austria, dreamy Zell am See is a mere twist on Innsbruck’s Christmas markets. A few hours into the journey, you will reach the rarefied orbit of the inconspicuous Lech and Oberlech. Head straight for the exquisite hospitality of the five-star Relais & Châteaux Gasthof Post, home to Jordanian and Dutch royalty.

Zermatt, in the Swiss Alps, has stunning views of the snow-capped Matterhorn.

In Switzerland, the traditional Walser village of Mürren, perched high in the middle of the mountain (accessible by cable car, James Bond style), is spectacularly situated.

The adventures in Zermatt in Switzerland are also burned into our family’s collective Christmas memory. The car-free city offers endless views of the haunting Matterhorn, tilted like a crooked witch’s hat. Traditional wooden sleds with curly skates can be ridden on these slopes. Say “Zermatt” and I also imagine glasses of glühwein, a thick pine forest and skaters spinning around the resort rink.

This year our family Christmas spirit is quickly approaching a fever pitch. Soon we’ll be heading north on holiday to Northern Lapland in Finland to witness the Northern Lights from a glass-roofed igloo.

Heading north to meet Santa in Rovaniemi, Finland, is a popular pastime. Touted as the ‘official home of Santa Claus’, package flights land from the UK almost every hour at this time of year.

But no, my family goes to Northern Lights Village in Saariselkä, the Deidesheim of Finland (minus the vineyards), which means it’s often overlooked except by those in the know. It is 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, but a 30-minute drive from Ivalo International Airport.

Sledding is a popular winter pastime during the five hours of daylight in Northern Finland.

We’re booked to snowshoe Santa Claus in his log cabin deep in a forest, and we’ll also help feed 850 reindeer. That may sound like something young immigrant workers do to get visa extensions, but in fact, it’s a highly-skilled Finnish tourist activity.

I can already hear the screeching of snowshoes in the snow. And try the local blackberry liqueur.

Christmas Market Tips

Name | Mostly known as Weihnachtsmarkt in German, Christmas markets may also be called adventsmarkt, Christkindlmarkt, Nikolausmarkt, striezelmarkt, and krippenmarkt.

Duration | The four-week Advent season leading up to Christmas denotes the opening of the markets. Some open in mid-November; there are an estimated 3,000 markets throughout Germany, including 60 in Berlin.

Try | Regional market specialties. In Dresden, go for the Christstollen cake; in Cologne: Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom, snack speculative Cookies (spiced). Bavaria’s former Augsburg Christkindlesmarkt has gingerbread lebkuchen, and Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt houses zwetschgenmännle (figurines made from decorated dried plums). Deidesheim’s typical food is bratwurst from pigs fattened in the fields.

Visit a Swiss Christmas market for the apfelchucheli plain: deep-fried, battered, thick apple slices topped with warm vanilla custard.

6th of December | The date when Saint Nicholas (or Samichlaus in Switzerland) visits and the children leave the shoes to be filled with small gifts. In some European countries, this day rivals Christmas (usually celebrated on Christmas Eve) for sheer celebration.

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