Nuremberg Christmas market > winter cheer

Blonde German schoolgirl Eva Sattler, dressed as the infant Jesus Christ, is to open the archetypal, German Christmas market in the southern city of Nuremberg on Friday.

On the city’s main square, 200 vendors have set up wooden stalls to market gingerbread biscuits, fried sausages and mugs of hot spiced mulled wine, along with souvenirs such as tiny carved wooden dolls, in Nuremberg’s answer to the onset of winter.

With the sun setting in December at 4.30 pm and the temperature around freezing, tourists from around the world come looking for an antidote to bleakness. An evening stroll through the nighttime street market with its music and exotic odours renews their cheer.

Strictly speaking, Sattler’s symbolic arrival as the Christ Child, reciting a poem from a balcony of the Frauenkirche or Church of Our Lady at 5.30 pm, jumps the gun, since Christians do not mark the birth of Jesus Christ before nightfall on December 24. But merchants worldwide always promote Christmas awareness early, along with sales of Christmas candy, drinks and gifts.

Nuremberg’s history of commercializing Christmas dates back to 1628. The market has been copied in downtown pedestrian zones all over Germany, in 2,500 places by some counts, and in Chicago and many other faraway foreign cities.

The pageantry with Sattler stresses southern Germans’ attachment to the ‘Christ Child’ as the mythical figure who supposedly leaves gifts under the Christmas tree for children and steals away unseen. Many have criticized the rival figures, ‘Father Christmas’ or American-style ‘Santa Claus’ who visit the rest of the country, as secular creations who ‘take Christ out of Christmas.’

Children can hand their Christmas-present wish-lists to Sattler, during her evening appearances four days a week at the market, though it is up to doting parents to quietly retrieve the sheets and supply the actual goods on Christmas Eve at home.

Officials in Nuremberg, an upland Bavarian city north of Munich, said this week they had selected a slogan, ‘The Christ Child is at Home Here,’ to put a greater focus on the symbolic figure and meet accusations a year ago that markets in other cities were nicer. All the markets tread a fine line between keeping up the quaintness and ensuring profit for participating merchants.

Organizers are to insist this year in Nuremberg that food and drink be ‘traditional,’ including the sweet raisin bread, gingerbread and Nuremberg-style fried sausages. Visitors eat standing up, among the red-and-white striped awnings on Nuremberg’s Hauptmarkt square.

Tourists need deep pockets to buy some of the hand-crafted merchandise: Hand-painted nutcrackers at around 60 euros (80 dollars) or, for 100 euros, candle-powered windmills known as pyramids where angels or reindeer ride a multi-tiered carousel. However, beeswax candles come cheaper, as do tiny dolls with figs for bodies and prunes for arms and legs. A small mug of the giddying hot mulled wine costs 2 euros.

The best time to shop and eat is in the late evening when many locals arrive after work to enjoy the odours of spice, the melodies of Christmas carols and the magical effects of darkness and lights.

Those shopping promotions include a 9,000-litre tank of hot alcoholic punch, to be replenished as fast as glasses of the drink are sold, and flashier Christmas lighting outside city stores.

In a nod to tourists, Nuremberg is to admit coaches to the inner city this December for the first time in 10 years. Bus travellers have been put off for the past decade by having to park out of town and take mass-transit trains into the city.

Some 170 sales personnel at the market have also been trained to smile and be polite during the market’s 23-day run, after complaints in the past about surly or downright rude staff behind the counters of the wooden stalls.

Nuremberg has actively promoted itself since the 19th century as a Christmas centre, with exports of Christmas confectionery and of children’s toys, though its toy industry has been eclipsed in recent years by Chinese manufacturers. Among other German cities with internationally famous Christmas markets are Dresden, Stuttgart and Munich, all of which also claim attendance upwards of 2 million visitors annually.

However, the French region of Alsace has bragging rights for the most ancient Christmas markets. Strasbourg, formerly a German speaking city, says the first Christmas market in the shadow of its cathedral took place in 1570.