The voice rang through the Ludwigsburg Marktplatz like a church bell and ricocheted off the angel wings suspended above.
“Come and try it,” the voice called out in German. “It’s delicious, delicious, delicious.”
The messenger was Karl Heinz, a jolly red-nosed man who was spreading a gospel of German Christmases past and present: Eat lebkuchen.
“Lebkuchen belongs to Christmas,” said Stefan Koch, who with Heinz was selling gingerbread at the Christmas market held in the baroque square. “It’s a tradition.”
The spiced treat that evokes fireplaces and snuggly socks is one of the many holiday customs that come out of storage during Germany’s Christmas market season. From late November until a few days before Christmas, more than 2,500 markets pop up across the country. They appear in sprawling cities such as Berlin, which boasts about 60 markets; in elfin communities such as Johanngeorgenstadt, a former mining town with fewer than 5,000 residents; and on royal grounds, including Hohenzollern Castle, the dream house of King Frederick William IV.
In spite of the event’s name — known variously as Weihnachtsmarkt, Christkindlmarkt, Christkindlesmarkt, Nikolausmarkt and Striezelmarkt — you don’t need to be German or religious to revel in the Old World celebrations. Nutcrackers and sausage are nondenominational citizens of the world.
“This is Germany! This is Christmas!,” said Thomas Volm, a guide at the holiday market at Hohenzollern Castle, about 40 miles south of Stuttgart. “This is my favorite time of the year. It looks like a bilderbuch — a picture book.”
Germany plunges antlers-first into the spirit of the holiday, and visitors can soak up traditions dating from the late Middle Ages. At the markets, you can sample foods that appeared on royal and ecumenical tables half a millennium ago and purchase seasonal decorations in vogue since the 1700s. Revelers can also raise a mug of glühwein to Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who shifted the day of gift-giving from Dec. 6 to Dec. 24.
Hallelujah for extra shopping time!
On the morning of the first Advent Sunday, Stuttgart was quiet and peaceful. Stores were shuttered; churches were open. A trio of men in Santa caps and reindeer antlers silently jogged through Schlossplatz Palace Square. The Mercedes symbol atop the railway station gleamed against a pewter sky.
However, a few streets away, more than 280 market stalls were stirring to life.
As an introduction to Christmas in Germany, my guide described some of the more common practices. For instance, Elisabeth said, families typically decorate their trees on Dec. 24 with white lights, candles, silvery thread, glass-blown balls or straw ornaments — simple and restrained. Children receive their presents on Christmas Eve. Elisabeth, who was born in 1944, remembers the gift from her youth: a cookie.
Food is central to the celebrations. Over the holidays, German households fill their pantries with gingerbread, cinnamon star cookies, stollen and fruit bread, a dense brown loaf not reviled like its American cousin.
“Busy housewives bake it,” she said, “but I buy it.”
The market, which was founded in 1692, carries the main supplies for a genuine German Christmas — with the exception of the Christmas Day goose. During the day, many of the visitors are from out of town or country. The Swiss, for instance, show up in buses and stock up on gifts that are significantly cheaper than items sold on their side of the border. In the evening, residents arrive all bundled up. They gather around outdoor tables, socializing with friends over mulled wine and sausages that poke out of round buns like dachshund tails.
“The Christmas markets are very similar with the glühwein and wurtz,” Elisabeth said as we passed groups of people clutching commemorative mugs filled with the hot beverage.
I asked her what makes Stuttgart’s market unique.
“Stuttgart is special because of the decorations,” she replied, adding that the vendor with the best rooftop display wins a thousand euros.
Competition is fierce.
“He is very boring,” she said of a hut covered in a mess of leafy branches. “He won’t win the prize, but he makes very beautiful wooden boxes.”
Other kiosks were more ambitious: an animatronic teddy bear blowing bubbles, angels rolling out dough for springerle biscuits, a garden of rainbow-colored stars.
After a tour above the rooflines, we dropped our heads for some eye-level attractions — if we crouched down. In the separate children’s section, a train built for short-legged passengers chugged through a wee town outfitted with a working ski gondola and a tiny illuminated church. A sweets shop invited little chefs into its kitchen to bake gingerbread, and a candle workshop arranged vats of dye for dip-your-own candlemaking.
I approached the candle counter and asked to make a star. (Other options: Santa and a moon). The woman laid out a warm square of pink wax and handed me a metal cutter. I stepped onto the raised platform and hunched my shoulders to avoid banging my head on the ceiling. I pressed down into the soft material and watched a dwarf-star galaxy materialize. I pierced a hole in each one, imagining a tree of stars. As I descended the steps, the employee said wistfully, “I wish more adults did this.”
Only a minority of the goods are Made by You; most are Made in Germany, a point of national pride that appears on many signs. I noticed only a few outliers — dream catchers, Buddha statues, wool hats from Nepal — more appropriate for Coachella.
I sifted through baskets of straw stars and bins of wood ornaments shaped like animals, musical instruments and such winter subjects as wreaths, snowmen and polar bears wearing ice skates. I browsed through handmade brushes suited for hair, keyboards and floors, and a menagerie of cookie cutters including owls, butterflies, hedgehogs and koala bears. Several stands carried treats stamped with Stuttgart’s seal of tradition: the intricately designed springerle, for instance, and the cheeky Stuagerder Rossbolla, a chocolate confection inspired by the animal on the city’s coat of arms, the stud. (Round, brown “drops,” if you get what I mean.)
“One street, one street, one street,” said Elisabeth as she pointed out the different lanes thick with retailers. “There are so many stalls, you can go crazy.”
For the first hour in my first market, I maintained a strict discipline. I would look, ask questions, imagine it in my home — then walk away. However, a gold-winged angel smaller than my thumb melted my resolve. She wore brown pigtails and red shoes and held a yellow balloon between her ball-like hands.
A pair of thick fingers lifted her out of the glass case and deposited her into my palm. I felt my inner miniatures-collecting grandmother trying to escape. I assured myself that one angel wasn’t the gateway drug to a curio cabinet. I purchased the figurine, then looked over at a blond angel holding a red heart. I’ll be back for you later.
My angel from the Günter Reichel workshop (est. 1989, a fateful year) was part of a broader collection of crafts from the Erzgebirge, an eastern region known for its wooden folk art. The objects are beyond just cute and well-crafted; they signify a perseverance of tradition and spirit under the Communist regime that controlled East Germany from 1949 until 1990.
“Before ’89, we couldn’t buy this unless we had a relative in eastern Germany,” Elisabeth said. “And we would send over marzipan and hazelnuts.”
Twenty-five years later, the only challenge we Westerners face is figuring out how to squeeze all of those Erzgebirge pieces into our luggage.
The body parts rested on the table like show-and-tell in a biology class: hands, feet, legs, arms, torso, head, mustache, hair, beard, nutcracker jaw. However, this anatomy lesson worked in reverse. The professionals at the Richard Glässer workshop in Seiffen were constructing, not deconstructing, a whole being — in this case, a baker nutcracker.
The Ore Mountain town near the Czech Republic border is a real-life Santa’s Village with more than 100 holiday and toy workshops in a community of 2,500 residents. More than a dozen stores along the main lanes crowd their shelves with festive trinkets constructed on-site or, at the most, a few miles away. Colored lanterns illuminate the streets with images of local scenes, such as young carolers and sledders. A giant wooden statue of a man seated on a bench emits puffs of smoke from his pipe every half-hour. A few steps away, a nutcracker sits on a horse watching the foot traffic.
“You come here in the summertime,” said my guide, Christina, “and it’s Christmas.”
During the holiday season, a small Christmas market takes up residence in the 16th-century courtyard of the Hotel Erbgericht Buntes Haus. Vendors also set up stalls on the sidewalks, seeding the dry patches between shops with refreshments and crafts.
At the Glässer store and factory, visitors can watch the creative process and also better understand why, say, a 24-inch nutcracker soldier costs $225.
“Everything is made by hand,” Christina said. “It’s very expensive.”
On the first floor, a woodworker in a white apron was carving doll-size Christmas trees. He shaved the sides, throwing curlicues of wood into the air, and sharpened the tip. He tossed the form into a metal container and, without pausing to shake the scraps off his shoes, moved onto the next tree. On the second floor, a 39-year employee assembled a multi-level pyramid with a spinning propeller on top and a heat source (four candles) below. She reached into boxes holding carolers, sheep and other figures and glued them to the platforms. Her rate of production: 15 pyramids per eight hours.
During the Communist era, she said, “every article was exported to the world, so there were no toys in Seiffen.” Since reunification, the stores are stuffed like Santa’s sack, and the artisans have regained their freedom to innovate.
“The government said, ‘You have to do this and this and this,’ ” said my guide. “Now, they can be more creative and they can do more designs.”
To illustrate her point, she showed me a line-up of “modern” characters: a pirate, a night watchman with a moon head and a Bavarian bloke holding a beer and a pretzel, a favorite snack food of the West.
Despite all surrounding evidence, Seiffen wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in its mouth. During the first few centuries after its founding in 1324, tin mining was the dominant trade. After the industry peaked and collapsed in the 16th century, the residents turned to the forests for their livelihood. In the beginning, they constructed common household objects, such as plates and buttons, and later branched out to toys and Christmas items such as pyramids, candle arches, nutcrackers and smoking figures who blow incense out of their O-shaped mouths.
Though the town’s nickname is Toy Village, mining is still a vital cultural reference.
For example, Seiffen Miners’ Church, a town landmark, was constructed by and for the workers in 1779. Inside, a tin crucifix by the altar once adorned the caskets of miners on their final journeys to the cemetery. A pair of candle holders decorate the entryway. The duo represent the miner (the nattily dressed man) and the angel (with her telltale accessory, wings), and the matrimony of heaven and earth.
On a late-night walk, I gazed across the valley and saw only the twinkle of schwibbogens inside homes. The arch of the candle holder represents the mine entrance, and the candles signify the light absent from the miners’ lives day after day.
On this starless night, the glow of the Christmas decorations lifted the evening darkness.
I pressed the doorbell at a two-story house, chasing a clue I had unearthed at the Seiffen Toy Museum. According to an exhibit, Wilhelm Füchtner built the first Erzgebirge nutcracker out of spruce in 1870. And according to the tourist office, the family was still building nutcrackers. They provided me with the address.
I heard approaching footsteps and, seconds later, was staring into the kindly face of a man with pink cheeks and a thatch of silvery white hair. He was Uncle Volker, seventh generation. I followed him through the house to a workshop, where I met Markus, eighth generation. I asked the 34-year-old nephew about the distinguishing features of Füchtner nutcrackers, besides their ancestry. The nutcracker’s body, he said, is carved from one piece of wood instead of two.
Volker, dressed in a gray lab coat over a plaid shirt, demonstrated. With a few swift movements on the lathe, he transformed a cylinder into a barrel-chested, wasp-waisted nutcracker. In a separate room, the toy would receive a painted face and outfit, limbs and a mustache, and a fringe of rabbit fur for hair.
The five-person staff (two aunts and a friend) produce 30 styles of nutcrackers (examples: rifleman, forest ranger, red soldier) as well as several smokers (logger, chimney sweeper, mailman) and candle holders. On this afternoon, the angels and miners were waiting for their heads.
“When I think that I am making nutcrackers and smokers in this small village, and to see a nutcracker in a window in Japan or America,” Markus said, “I am a little bit famous.”
Before leaving, I bought a toymaker smoker. Uncle Volker signed his name on the bottom.
My tally after five days and five markets: three nutcrackers, one pyramid, one smoker, seven wooden animals, a penguin cookie cutter, an angel and a glühwein souvenir mug. My pretzel count will remain a secret.
By the time I reached the final market on my itinerary, I was perilously close to crossing over the line from satisfied to overstuffed. It was a temporary condition, but I needed a break.
The town of Esslingen can stretch an arm back to the Middle Ages, and its market is a bit of a time travel. In the medieval section, men and women wore the heavy cloaks and unkempt locks of that era. In stalls lit by cones of fire, they demonstrated period-appropriate trades, such as blacksmith, basket maker and knife grinder. A man in a hood heave-hoed a wooden Ferris wheel, spinning delight for young riders.
At the arcade, children practiced their crossbow skills against mythical creatures and tossed hard balls at soft-boiled eggs. The kid with the most cracks won a prize — egg-and-yolk-shape candy and polished stones (not edible). Several stages hosted performances by jugglers, stilt walkers, troubadours and fiery dancers.
At the 6 p.m. fire show, Lady Lidia, who wore a draping frock and magenta-red hair, handed the children in the front row a rope. The barrier would keep little fingers from getting burned by the show.
Lidia lit two metal fans and twirled around like a hippie majorette. She held them over her head, transforming into a butterfly touched by the sun. She retreated and later returned with fiery balls that she swung in circles.
The show was stunning. And restorative. I was ready to shop again.
Back in the market, I wondered whether the vendors ever considered selling fire-resistant ornaments. This way, I could incorporate all of the German Christmas market traditions, including Lady Lidia’s act.
More from Travel:
Hotel Erbgericht Buntes Haus
Hauptstrasse 94, Seiffen
Charming family-run hotel with wooden toys and Christmas crafts in the lobby and hallways, plus a small holiday market in the courtyard. Also on-site: restaurant and sauna. Rates from about $97 a night, including breakfast.
Esslingen medieval and
Town Hall Square
Several markets in one square, plus cultural performances. Open daily
11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., till Dec. 22.
Stuttgart Christmas market
Marktplatz, Schillerplatz and Schlossplatz area
More than 280 stalls, plus a children’s section. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday. Closes Dec. 23.
Erzgebirge Toy Museum
Hauptstrasse 7, Seiffen
The town’s history of toymaking is told through thousands of toys, wooden crafts and holiday pieces. Open daily
9 a.m.-5 p.m. About $5.
Richard Glässer workshop
Hauptstrasse 80, Seiffen
Werkstätte Volker Füchtner
Deutschneudorfer Strasse 34, Seiffen