The Complicated History of Germany's Christmas MarketsHistorians in the News
tags: Christmas, German history
Every holiday season, Christmas markets transform the main squares of cities across Europe into winter wonderlands. Twinkling lights adorn wooden huts and boughs of holly hang from street lamps. Vendors sell hand-carved ornaments and Nativity scene figurines, alongside piping hot mugs of glühwein (mulled wine), as Christmas carols fill the air. In Germany alone—where the tradition began—there are usually 2,500 to 3,000 holiday markets a year. Now, the markets are returning after two years of COVID-19 related closures.
Historians say preserving this cultural practice in old city centers is as important as shoring up medieval cathedrals or protecting ancient Roman ruins. They argue that Germany’s markets should be inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, alongside French baguette making and dragon boat festivals in China.
“What makes [the markets] so important isn’t just buying an ornament,” says Dirk Spennemann, associate professor in cultural heritage management at Australia’s Charles Sturt University, who has co-written studies about the cultural heritage of Christmas markets. “It’s this whole experience of sound, smell, visuals, but also the physicality of people around you.” What’s more, Spennemann argues that “intangible cultural heritage” encompasses traditions that are meant to be mutable, reshaped with each new generation.
Christmas markets certainly fit that definition. Over their centuries-long history, they have adapted to the changing politics and social customs of each new era—from the industrial revolution to the rise of the Nazi party.
Europe’s Christmas markets date back to medieval times when German territories covered a wide swath of the continent. Some of Germany’s existing Christmas markets trace their origins as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries. Dresden’s market first opened for one day on Christmas Eve in 1434. Meanwhile, the oldest evidence of Nuremberg’s Christmas market dates it to 1628, though some suspect it stretches back at least to 1530.
Spennemann says it’s unclear, however, whether these early bazaars were held for Christmas or simply took place at Christmastime. Back then, people lived in scattered communities within walking distance of a church that held markets for all religious feast days. The winter market was typically the biggest, with local artisans selling pottery, meat, baked goods, and maybe some sweets, if the sugar wasn’t too expensive.
There’s little record of the atmosphere of those early markets or when they shifted to offer Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, and toys. Some illustrations depict wealthy Germans hobnobbing in the main market square, while the poor shopped at back-street stalls. But Spennemann says these images are likely embellishments created by artists of later eras, who yearned for what was—to them—an idyllic Christmas past with each social class in its place.
The Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on Christmas markets in the early 19th century. The rising standard of living and the emergence of the working class fueled the growth of Christmas markets. In Berlin, for example, the Christmas market grew from 303 stalls in 1805 to about 600 in 1840.
As the markets began to cater to the working class, urban elites turned up their noses at the cheap gifts for sale, while police in cities across Germany complained about the unruly masses of workers who frequented them.
“It was seen as being seedy, even dangerous and threatening,” says Joe Perry, associate professor of modern European and German history at Georgia State University and author of Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History.