During the winter holiday season, there is nothing better than strolling around decorated wooden stalls to soak up some Christmas vibes and purchase handcrafted ornaments and special delicacies. There are just so many Christmas markets scattered around Europe that it is very hard to decide which one is better than the others. Here we have included two of the oldest ones: Strasbourg and Dresden.
1. Strasbourg, France
Firstly organized in 1570, Strasbourg’s Christmas market is considered one of the oldest ones in Europe. The first edition was organized under the name of Christkindelsmärik. However, records show that the first Christmas market was actually held well before 1570. Indeed, Strasbourg held a Klausenmärik (Saint Nicolas market) already in the late 12th century. The market was organized on 6 December each year. But it’s only when Alsace switched to Protestantism that the popular Christkindelsmärik (Christmas market), as it’s known today, came into being. At that moment, preacher Johannes Flinner decided to abolish the Klausenmärik to get rid of all references to Catholicism.
Back then, the market was held in the three days prior to Christmas Eve, at Place de la Cathédrale. Throughout the years, the Christkindelsmärik started to progressively open earlier. At the beginning of the 19th century, the market lasted six days. Just 50 years later, it was open for 36 days. In 1992, Strasbourg was named the capital of Christmas, when Jean-Jacques Gsell, deputy to the Mayor of Strasbourg Catherine Trautmann, had the idea of placing market stalls in various squares across the city.
The Christmas market has survived to this date, despite the city having to deal with numerous oppositions from traders in the 19th and 20th century, who perceived the market as a form of unfair competition. Today, the market is set up in the heart of the Grande Île in Strasbourg, a UNESCO world heritage site. It boasts more than 300 stalls that accommodate handmade items, Christmas decorations, and typical French products from the Alsace region. Kilometres of lights, the majestic Christmas tree, Christmas shows, concerts, and celebration make the visit to the market even more magical.
What makes this market even more unique is the influence of German culture. In the past, Strasbourg was part of the German Rhineland, an area with strong Christmas traditions. When Strasbourg came under French control, the city retained the German traditions. Still today Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in Alsatian culture, and particularly in the countryside. In November, Alsatian families make the traditional bredele (biscuits or small cakes from the Alsace region). Some people also make their own Advent wreath and nativity scene, bake spiced bread, and prepare hot wine. All these traditions are a fundamental part of Alsatian Christmas celebrations.
2. Dresden, Germany
Germany boasts more than 1,400 Christmas markets throughout the entire country. The oldest one is the market that has been held in the city of Dresden – the capital of Saxony – since the 15th century. Most of the traditions that are associated with German Christmas originate from Saxony. For instance, the famous sweet bread “Striezel” or “Stollen” is originally from Dresden. It is a special large cake made during the holiday season filled with candied fruit, dried fruit, and covered with icing sugar. Additionally, the Moravian Stars were invented and are still made in the Saxonian city of Herrnhut, and the first recipe for mulled wine is also attributed to a Saxon nobleman.
References to the Dresden Christmas market have been found in a document dating back to 1434. The document tells the story of a Christmas market set up in Dresden where the Stollen were sold. Dresden’s Christmas market is also known as Striezelmarkt, as it bears its name to the famous “Striezel.” The “Striezel” is celebrated at the Striezelmarkt with the “Stollenfest”, where a huge “Stollen” is baked and then sold for charitable purposes. Many items sold at the Christmas market, such as wooden toys and candle arches, have their roots in Saxony’s Ore Mountains and the mining activities that have shaped the landscape, the architecture, and the people of Saxony. When mining became unprofitable, miners started crafting handmade objects such as toys, wooden items, and ornaments to make a living.
Today, the market is located in the Altmarkt, the oldest square of Dresden where knight tournaments were once held. It has over 240 stands that still today, sell a large number of handmade products from local manufacturers. The market extends over half a mile between Prager Strasse and Hauptstrasse. While wandering along the stands, visitors will feel like they were in a fairytale made of Christmas trees, nativity scenes, elf cottages, puppet theaters, and Santa Claus’ House.