Hamburg Revels in Its Tradition of Christmas Markets

By Terry Ward
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 21, 2008

For an American raised on shopping-mall Santas and Christmas Eve drives through the suburbs to ogle people's decorated houses, there's nothing quite like walking around a German Weihnachtsmarkt, or Christmas market.

Unlike Oktoberfest, which is really a Bavarian thing, Christmas markets are found in cities and villages throughout Germany every December, with some stretching into the new year. Berlin, Dresden, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and others, they all have markets.

It's a frosty evening when I leave my sleek hotel room at the Sofitel in Hamburg's city center to meet a fellow American, Casey Hassenstein, at a nearby Christmas market.

The contrast between the contemporary Sofitel (Germans really like their high-design hotels, and this one's as minimalist chic as it gets) and the traditional holiday scene playing out at the Christmas market just around the corner hits me like hot gluehwein on a cold night. For all their love of streamlined design in everything from eyeglasses to home decor, this is a people that likes its Christmas traditions as old-school and warm and fuzzy as they come.

The Fleetinsel market is one of the smallest of Hamburg's nine Christmas markets. It's set in a square surrounded by office buildings at the end of the posh Neuer Wall shopping street. By the time Casey and I show up at 6 p.m., office workers are beelining it to the most popular tent, where giant vats of gluehwein, or mulled wine, are being drained into mugs for the bundled-up masses. Casey and I plunk down four euros each for a steaming mug -- that includes a two-euro deposit on the mug (you can keep it as a souvenir in exchange for the deposit) -- and join a group circled around a fire pit for warmth.

A guy in a suit is recounting the astrological reading he just received from the market's resident tarot card reader. "I will travel a lot for business and have many ups and downs with love and money," he tells his friends, who laugh and raise their mugs for a toast.

Around us, the white tents are mood-lit to perfection, strung with fresh garlands of greenery and dotted with red bows. Formal-looking signs (old-fashioned gold-and-red surrounded by gold scrollwork) announce the goods for sale.

In one tent, big, heart-shaped cookies with corny sentiments written in German in curlicue frosting read "Grandma, you're super," and "With you, I'd go to the end of the world."

Another tent, festooned with animal skins and antlers, is doing brisk business in bread bowls filled with wild boar goulash and wild mushrooms sauteed with berries. A group of friends tries on funky handmade wool hats at a stall nearby.

Casey, originally from Chevy Chase, has been in Hamburg since 2006, when she married "Hermann the German" and made the move overseas. Adjusting to living and working in Germany, she tells me, hasn't been easy.

"I'm normally homesick for the U.S. all the time, [and] the language thing is really frustrating," she says. "But I feel a little less homesick during December. No other country does Christmas like Germany."

"It's the best time of year to be here, especially in Hamburg," Casey adds. "People are in such a good mood, and they really enjoy the holidays: being outside, drinking the gluehwein, meeting up with each other."

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