Christmas markets are a staple of the holiday season across Europe. They often mark the beginning of the festive fun and make for a great day or night out during the build up to the 25th. Christmas markets are renowned as one of Germany’s biggest exports and best creations. From glühwein to traditional cakes and biscuits, Christmas markets in countries around Europe (and even further afield) all have that characteristic German feel.
Germany, the home of the tradition, is said to have over 3,000 markets every Christmas and there are many more across Europe and here in the UK. Let’s take a look at the history of one of our favourite Christmas traditions.
The beginnings of the Christmas market
Despite Christmas markets being widely considered a German tradition, the first incarnation may have been Austrian, specifically Viennese, rather than German. Opened in 1298, the Krippenmarkt (meaning ‘Manger Market’) or Dezembermarkt (December Market) was Emperor Albrecht’s idea to encourage Viennese citizens to stock up on supplies before the dark winter months.
Whether or not the Krippenmarkt kick-started Wintermärkte (winter markets) in Germany is unknown, but it is highly likely. In either case, Munich held its first winter market in 1310, Bautzen in 1384 and Frankfurt in 1393. However, the city of Dresden hosted Striezelmarkt, which is widely regarded as the first ‘proper’ Christmas market, in 1424.
Named after a type of cake, Striezelmarkt was founded for the sale of, predominantly, grilled meat a few days before the market in Bautzen. It’s still going strong today, even though it was only supposed to be held for one year.
Due to its popularity, Striezelmarkt was soon selling much more than just meat destined for Christmas dinner. This included toys, cakes, bread, nuts, sweets, decorations, handicrafts and so on, all wrapped up in a festive atmosphere of music and merriment.
Protestants reform the Christmas markets
The fashion for Christmas markets was further boosted by the German Reformer, Martin Luther, who, in 1531, was responsible for the tradition of opening presents on the day of Christ’s birthday. This was opposed to the Catholic custom of exchanging gifts on St Nicholas Day (6th December) to commemorate the saint who died in 343 A.D.
The protestants rejected the veneration of all saints, St. Nicolas included, which led to a wave of Christmas markets laying out their stalls in any given German town or city square in the run-up to Yuletide. In short, the origins of the modern Christmas market are entwined in a protestant agenda, though St. Nicholas did alright for himself in the end.
Because Germany’s population was both isolated and illiterate, getting specific details about the proliferation of the Christmas market is problematic. But we can tell by the names of some of the more established markets on which side of the theocratic line they lay.
Take one of Germany’s largest, officially dated as being founded in 1628, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt Market. Before Luther, markets may have been named after cake or the season, but Christkindlmarkt translates as 'Christ-child market'.
Things ticked along in this vein for the next few hundred years until the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Improved living standards and a new working class with spending power provided Christmas markets with a proverbial shot in the arm. In 1805, the Berlin market had exactly 303 stalls, 35 years later this had almost doubled to 600.
Department stores take over
But by the middle of the 19th century, the upper echelons of society were less than happy with common people crashing into their Glühwein and Knoblauchbrot. All of a sudden, the Christmas market fell out of favour with the middle classes. Now they were condemned as places selling tacky goods and only good for ne’er-do-wells and drunks.
This perception of the Christmas market as being literally down market may have been driven by the owners of new, swanky department stores that didn’t fancy competing against a bunch of commoners. Almost overnight, the traditional Christmas market was relegated to the outskirts of town. They remained there for the next hundred-odd years until help to get the markets back into town and city centres came from the most unlikely of quarters.
The unlikely saviours of Christmas markets
Far from being seen as dens of inequity, the Nazi party saw the Christmas market as an opportunity to celebrate German heritage. Any semblance of a former religious agenda was crushed under jackboots as the Nazis made the Christmas market their very own, selling only German goods to help inspire national pride and contribute to the economy. Both, it seemed, worked. In 1934, a record-breaking 1.5 million people visited the main Christmas market in Berlin. In 1936, it had two million visitors.
After the Second World War, the Christmas market in Germany continued to grow and the tradition gradually seeped out of Germany into wider Europe and beyond.
A big boost to the winter economy
German-style Christmas markets first arrived in the UK in Lincoln in 1982 and then in Birmingham in 1997. The wider trend spread quite quickly and is now a key part of the country’s winter economy. Estimated visitor spending in Christmas markets increased significantly year-on-year with figures from 2015-2017 suggesting a total of over £500m was spent across the country.
Millions of people love the chance to walk around the slightly generic but super festive Bavarian-style huts in their local town or city. It’s also a chance to visit new areas too as many people travel to other counties to experience their take on the market. There are even companies who run coach tours to Germany, giving tourists the chance to visit several markets during a trip around the country.
Five fantastic Christmas Markets in the UK
Almost every town and city in the UK has its own festive markets and celebrations. However, if you’re looking for the biggest and most popular UK Christmas markets, you can’t miss out on these five:
Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations are world-renowned and full of festive magic. From the end of October until early January, visitors can enjoy the traditional market feel with an authentic Scottish twist. Princes Street Gardens is the heart of the markets.
Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market is one of the most celebrated across Europe. It has a vibrant bustling atmosphere and benefits from the beautiful backdrop of Winchester Cathedral. It has a very traditional feel, packed with seasonal delights and over 100 chalets bearing goods and gifts. The 2023 markets will run from mid-November until December.
A short but sweet affair, Bath Christmas Market runs from the end of November until early December and is one of the biggest festive shopping events in South West England. It has won many awards for its popularity and for creating a truly historic and traditional Christmas experience. Bath Christmas Market has a distinctively British feel and 60% of the goods for sale are handmade.
One of the first and biggest of all UK Christmas markets, Manchester Christmas Market is huge with over 300 stalls spread across 10 different sites around the city. It runs from early November until just before Christmas Day.
Nottingham Winter Wonderland is the largest Christmas market in the East Midlands. The Nottingham Christmas Market runs from mid-November until the end of December and is a huge, expansive experience with traditional Bavarian-style stalls as well as plenty of treats to eat.