If luxury is authenticity, this dip is five stars.
I’m a happy Christmas market fan, but Deidsheim’s storybook festive atmosphere is only the superficial appeal.
It’s the village’s past: the sense of place and history I feel most strongly when stopping to really look at the old houses. Or listen to the chefs barking at each other in guttural Papalzish as they cook spit meat Schwenkers – Forged iron grills swing over flames. There is a feeling that these scenes have been taking place since the Middle Ages.
Felix Braun, an academic whose family has had a hobby vineyard in the area for nearly 100 years, recalls going to his grandfather’s house on weekends as a child.
“The highlight of the winter was when he took me to the Christmas markets. He taught me to carve wood in his workshop, and we would always look at the carvings at the market.
“When I take my kids these days, it reminds me of him; while other markets have become so commercial, it still feels real, that’s the magic.”
Dr. Dirk Spenmann, associate professor of cultural heritage management at Charles Sturt University in Australia, and a Christmas market connoisseur, explains the strong connection to the German psyche. “Culturally, Christmas markets have long provided a welcome escape from the wintry and cold introduction of Christmas,” he says
“It’s the perfect place to socialize and spend a great evening; Christmas markets also evoke childhood memories of tradition, elevating the meaning beyond a place to buy decorations and gifts.”
Besides, there were initially no decorations, just trading of goods and food in the wintermärktes found in the Middle Ages throughout German-speaking Europe – such as Vienna’s Decembermarkt, which dates from around 1296.
There’s only a vague indication of when Christmas items entered the fray, with Dresden’s strietzelmarkt making the strongest claim to being the “first” Christmas market specifically selling gifts – on Christmas Eve, 1434, several centuries after the city was founded. .
Considering markets have been around for more than seven centuries or so, it’s inevitable that many have become politicized over the decades, not to mention profitable. The Nazis filled Advent calendars with propaganda, and the atheist GDR had market woodcarvers change the names of their angels to jahresendflügelfigur (winged year-end figurines).
Faux Bavarian market huts have popped up from the US to India, complete with electronic Santas and the like. In the UK, the number of Christmas markets has 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 hometown, Höhr-Grenzhausen, two hours away; Dr. Spanman enjoys the ‘less touristy’ markets, such as Mainz and Wurzburg. He also rates Frankfurt and Dresden for larger markets.
Didheim has my heart. But just to be controversial, I’m going to say that my favorite Christmas market of all time is not German but French.
The Strasbourg Marché de Noël is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe (dating back to 1570) and is full of magic. Within a snowball’s reach of the German border, France and Germany have long battled for control of Strasbourg. Who can blame them, especially in December, when swaths of fairy lights and snowflakes further enhance this coquettish of French cities.
On a recent visit, standing among the multitude of markets and stalls, our little family of four stopped to warm up Pain (Gingerbread). Our quartet of nibblers must have looked a bit like a hungry nativity scene, nestled among French carols wearing Santa hats and nuns selling hand-stitched figurines.
Chris Fandel, head of marketing for Avalon Waterways, advocates the Strasbourg markets as a favorite, countering that “all markets have their own special charm and unique atmosphere.” Like many river cruise operators, Avalon offers a seven-day ‘Christmas on the Danube’ cruise designed to showcase the gems of festive central Europe, including visits to markets in Vienna, Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg.
On Viking, the eight-day ‘Christmas on the Rhine’ from Basel to Amsterdam includes markets in Cologne and Vienna. Uniworld’s magical 11-day Christmas & The New Year’s cruise itinerary explores markets across Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia with Christmas Eve in Passau. The riverboat rings in the new year in Budapest.
Whether explored by water or land, Christmas markets are just one element of a trip to Europe in December. Especially if you’re going to Switzerland for the atmospheric Insiedeln during their 10-day Christmas market, or the Montre Noel market with its flying Santa’s sleigh.
After enjoying the sights, you are ideally located near the Alps for a real bucket list experience – a white Christmas. Preferably enjoy on skis.
Most of Europe is snow-free at Christmas, so combining an Alpine town with a box of chocolates and guaranteed skiing is a no-brainer.
“In European ski areas, the original towns are often found on the valley floors,” explains Sarah Plaskitt, owner of Scout, which specializes in boutique ski vacations. The specially built ski towns (mainly in France) are therefore located higher up in the mountains, where the snow falls early. Considering many of these resorts went up in the 1970s, unfortunately that’s not always where the historic buildings are.
A few well-chosen places offer the jackpot: a charming traditional town at high altitude. Just aim for an altitude of over 1850 meters when you hike in December, and you should be right.
In France, Val-d’Isère is the place to plant poles (staying at 2551m Le Refuge de Solaise, the oldest cable car station in France, now a sophisticated hotel) or stroll to the village of Courchevel 1850.
In Austria, dreamy Zell am See is just a spin from Innsbruck’s Christmas markets. A few hours drive away, you will reach the rare track of the discreet Lech and Oberlach. Go straight to the fine five-star Relais and Châteaux Gasthof Post accommodation, where Jordanian and Dutch royalty stay.
In Switzerland, the traditional village of Walser Mürren – nestled in the middle of a mountain (accessible by cable car, James Bond style) – is spectacularly situated.
Adventures in Zermatt, Switzerland are also burned into our family’s collective Christmas memory. The car-free town offers endless views of the speeding Matterhorn, leaning like a crooked witch’s hat. On these slopes you can ride traditional wooden sleds with curly runners. Say “Zermatt”, and I also imagine glasses of glöhwein, a forest of thick pine trees and skaters spinning on the resort’s rink.
This year, our Christmas family spirit is quickly approaching fever pitch. We’re going far north soon – on holiday to northern Lapland in Finland to see the Northern Lights from a glass-roofed igloo.
Traveling north to meet Santa in Finland’s Rovaniemi is a popular pastime. Known as the “official home of Santa”, package flights land from the UK on an almost hourly basis at this time of year.
But no, my family travels to the Northern Lights village of Saariselkä, the Deidesheim of Finland (minus the vineyards) – meaning it’s often overlooked, except by those in the know. It’s 250 km north of the Arctic Circle, but a 30-minute drive from Ivalo International Airport.
We’ve been invited to snowshoe Santa in his log cabin deep in the woods, and we’ll also help feed 850 reindeer. It might sound like something young migrant workers do to extend their visa, but in fact, it’s a highly rated Finnish tourism activity.
I can already hear the crunch of snowshoes on the snow. And taste the local cloud liqueur.
Christmas market tips
There | Christmas markets mostly known as Weihnachtsmarkt in German, can also be called adventsmarkt, Christkindlmarkt, Nikolausmarkt, striezelmarkt and krippenmarkt.
duration | The four week season leading up to Christmas marks the opening of the markets. Some are open in mid-November; There are about 3000 markets across Germany, including 60 in Berlin.
try | Specializations in the regional market. In Dresden, go for the Christstollen bread-like cake; In Cologne: Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom, for a snack spectius Biscuits (seasoned). Bavaria’s ancient Augsburg Christkindlesmarkt has gingerbread on offer, and Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is home to zwetschgenmännle (decorated prune figures). Deidsheim’s signature meal is bratwurst from pigs fattened in the field.
Visit the Swiss Christmas Market for apfelchucheli Alone – thick slices of apple dipped in batter and deep fried, topped with warm vanilla custard.
December 6 | The date when St. Nicholas (or Samichlaus in Switzerland) visits and children leave shoes to fill with small gifts. In some European countries, this day rivals Christmas (usually celebrated on Christmas Eve) for sheer celebration.