Friday, October 3, 2014

European Christmas Markets rekindle the spirit of the season

Entrance to the Christmas Market in Baden Baden, Germany  (Photo: Taylor)
UPPER RHINE VALLEYEUROPE, October 3, 2014 – Two of travel’s most popular new trends are set to converge as the holiday season approaches. The first is off-season travel and the second is European Christmas Markets.

Typical European Christmas setting  (Photo: Wikimedia)
Christmas Markets rekindle the lost spirit of the season within your soul. Furthermore, a visit to the Chriskindelsmariks (markets of the Child Jesus) of Europe may be the only trip a traveler ever takes where bad weather is an asset. Be it snow, sleet, freezing rain, drizzle or plain old sub-zero temperatures, it just doesn’t matter. Nothing can dampen your enthusiasm.

When the weather is rotten hot mulled wine and sausages taste better, music is cheerier, cheeks are rosier and Christmas renews itself by reaching into forgotten recesses of childhood memories.

Gingerbread is a popular treat  (Photo: Taylor)
It really doesn’t matter which Christmas Market you choose. They are everywhere. Oddly enough, though they are all basically the same, each one is unique. Some are festivals of light. Others feature local arts and crafts. Still others focus on food and entertainment.

Many sprawl throughout a city while others center around a small main square in front of the cathedral. No matter where you go or what you choose to do, the only thing guaranteed to happen is that your spirits will soar in a personal metamorphosis that would do Ebenezer Scrooge proud.

One region especially suited for travelers during the holiday season is the Upper Rhine Valley, which includes Switzerland, France and Germany. The area is compact, making it convenient by rail, boat or car, while offering the cultural flavor of three different countries.  
Picturesque narrow streets filled with decorations  (Photo: Taylor)
There are large markets such as Strasbourg and Basel, medium sized hamlets like Baden-Baden and Freiburg and smaller towns where entire villages become a market as in Obernai. The important thing is to visit more than one because the food, music, art, crafts, lights, decorations and individual stalls vary widely from city to city and, even, from square to square.

Colorful lights in front of Strasbourg Cathedral  (Photo: Taylor)
Though not the largest, Strasbourg features the oldest market in France. It also ranks among the best known Christmas Markets in Europe dating to the year 1570. Vienna held something called a December Market during Christmas in 1294, but it was more of a traditional market than anything to do with the season. As far as Christmas is concerned, Munich may be the oldest going all the way back to 1310.

Music is part of the atmosphere  (Photo: Taylor)
Despite that, Strasbourg places so much emphasis on illumination that it calls itself (at least during Christmas) “the City of Light” while proudly proclaiming the title “Capital of Christmas” thanks to its role in the evolution of the Christmas Market story.

Historically, the traditional day for gifts and handing out candy in Europe was December 6th to honor the day the patron saint of Lorraine, Saint Nicholas, died in the late 4th century. Many places in Europe still observe December 6th as the day of giving.

In 1570 a protestant preacher in Strasbourg named Johannes Flinner became upset that Catholics were venerating a saint. He convinced local authorities to do away with the St. Nicholas Market. What took its place was a Christmas Market later in the month of December.

Manger scene with live animals  (Photo: Taylor)
At first the market was only a three-day event held in front of the cathedral just before Christmas. Over the centuries there were several changes of venue until the market took permanent residence at Place Broglie, one of the main squares in the city. Today the market spreads throughout Strasbourg where its primary theme of light is ever-present.

In Germany, the hot mulled wine is called gluhwein while in France it is simply vin chaud, or hot wine. It is arguably the drink of choice at virtually any market, but be forewarned, especially in Germany where inhaling the spices too quickly can take your breath away until you learn to sip properly.

Hot mulled Gluhwein or Vin Chaud will warm your spirit  (Photo: Taylor)
Nativity scenes are also mood inspiring because they usually include live sheep, goats and other animals calmly grazing on hay covered floors in front of a crèche. Though Europeans long ago abandoned church-going on a regular basis, there remains a sense of serenity about live animals in a manger scene where nobody gets upset over political correctness.  Somehow tradition wins out and that adds to the ambience of the surroundings.

Stroll and mingle  (Photo: Taylor)
Savor the aromas of the season while strolling from booth to booth. Spices, cinnamon, perfumes, scented candles, hot doughnuts and pretzels permeate the frigid air and lull you into a realm of long- lost sensations.

Church bells ring out. Choirs sing in the distance. Sleigh bells jingle.

Mingle with locals. Stroll among half-timbered buildings and colorful wooden stalls. Inhale deeply and take in Christmas as you never have before. 

“Oh, come all ye faithful” for the European Christmas markets are truly a “joy to the world.”