I’ve lived in Europe for the past seven years and not a winter has passed without us bundling our three kids into the car, throwing in a pile of jackets, hats, scarves, and gloves behind them, and setting out to freeze as we visit a Christmas market somewhere in Germany.
The fact that we don’t actually celebrate Christmas has yet to be called into question. Our children know that the best celebrations involve food, preferably a deep fryer, and window-shopping. So December is the month that rewards us with not only Hanukkah but our annual pilgrimage to the German Christmas markets.
Christmas markets are steeped in a history that goes back to the Middle Ages. While they are now a booming business, they have mostly kept their old world charm, brimming with the simple pleasures of fairy lights draped across small wooden huts and children scrambling onto small rides and collecting candy canes. If perfectly formed snowflakes start to float down while visiting a Christmas market, even the most agnostic adult will surrender to this fairy tale. You don’t have to celebrate Christmas for it to feel magical, even if you can no longer feel your feet.
There are, of course, Christmas markets all across Europe. We have made the obligatory visit to our local Dutch market and to our neighbors in Belgium, but no one can compete with the Germans when it comes to holding an outdoor market in the middle of December. Christmas markets may be about history, culture, tradition, and, of course, Christmas, but the experience of visiting one can warm the most cynical of Jewish hearts. Food and shopping combined with acceptable daytime drinking: What’s not to love?
Besides, is there a more Jewish past time than stuffing yourself with oversized skewers of tasty meat of questionable origins? What could give you more pleasure than serving your children piles of reibekuchen and calling them latkes? It’s virtually a family Hanukkah celebration, just in more atmospheric surroundings.
Watch your children fight over the three tiny spiced chicken sausages stuffed into a roll at the Nuremberg markets as you enjoy your adults-only glühwein and eggnog. Choose whether to get your vitamins from the hot cherries in vanilla sauce poured over a steamed bun or strawberries dipped in chocolate. Wander through the cobbled streets of Aachen’s Weihnachtsmarkt nibbling on their Printen (gingerbread) and then compare it with Nuremberg’s famous version, Lebkuchen and realize that bagels aren’t the only baked treat capable of dividing a family. Return your festive mug and collect your deposit, or take my lead and start your own Christmas market mug collection.
Granted, this experience will lose some of its magic if you’re kosher or have an aversion to Germans. It’s also not advisable if you have a long holiday shopping list and think a Christmas market is the time to make your way through it.
The markets are naturally full of seasonal trinkets, from handmade Christmas tree baubles to nutcrackers and questionable regional specialties such as Dresden’s Pflaumentoffel, a chimney-sweep figure made of dried prunes. To actually feel compelled to shop for presents at a Christmas market, however, is to take the joy out of the whole experience. The true freedom of Christmas markets comes with the gift of non-observance. Wander around the stalls, appreciate the craftsmanship, indulge in the whimsy, and, when you’re done, head back for another refill of glühwein.
Your stomach will be sure to protest, and you won’t be able to make eye contact with meat for the foreseeable future, but this is the pleasure of the German Christmas markets. Where else can you use food and drink to insulate yourself from the elements and count the whole experience as a cultural outing, all while expanding your waistline in anticipation of the next cultural family trip: Chinese food on Christmas Day.