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Festive Fairs


Bartek Kieżun

When the nights draw in and the cool air fills with the aroma of roast chestnuts and mulled wine, it’s a sure sign that the Christmas market season is upon us!

Although many people bemoan the fact that today’s events are a far cry from the splendid fairs of yesteryear, the fact remains that the markets, usually starting at the beginning of Advent, draw thousands if not millions of tourists. So what are the origins of the tradition?

It all started a long, long time ago. In 1296, Albert I, Duke of Austria and later King of Germany and King of the Romans, granted Vienna’s citizens the privilege of holding a December market to make sure they were fully supplied for the winter months. The first markets mainly sold sausages, hams and fresh and preserved meats.


Christmas Fair, Kraków, photo by Łukasz Cioch, LCMedia.pl

With time, traders and their families also started setting up stalls selling baskets, toys and wooden figurines as well as seasonal delicacies: honeyed almonds, roast chestnuts and aromatic gingerbread. Thus December markets turned into Christmas fairs, and the first official one is said to have been the Strietzelmarkt in Dresden, held since 1434.

Although this claim has been contested by Frankfurt am Main, Bautzen and Munich, historians stand firm that events in those cities were simply markets held in December, and that the Strietzelmarkt in Dresden was the first to fully embrace the delicious fragrances and flavours we now associate with Christmas fairs.

Originally rather modest, the fairs really took off in the 16th century. It is said that it was Martin Luther himself who was the originator of the tradition of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas, and the markets adapted accordingly, selling candles, decorations and trinkets. Churches quickly took the opportunity to draw people to attend Mass, and demanded that fairs be held at squares by cathedrals and other important churches – a tradition which continues to the present day.

Traditions of markets and fairs have always served as an expression of social and historic coexistence in the city. Agnes Dürer sold works by her husband Albrecht at the market in Nuremberg, providing herself with income and giving the public access to his art. Today, art fairs such as Art Weekend and RathausART present contemporary artworks by artists from Nuremberg and all over the globe. Traditional fairs marking Easter and autumn, as well as the Trempelmarkt, abound with arts and crafts whose design evolves over the years and reveals the huge diversity of contemporary culture.
Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is regarded as the longest-running Christmas fair, drawing around two million visitors from all over the globe. Tourists are left with a vision of Nuremberg and its Old Town as a testament of the past and a living museum.
Silvie Preußer, Department of International Relations, City of Nuremberg


Nuernberger Christkindlesmarkt, Christmas Fair in Nuremberg, photo by Uwe Niklas

Although many centuries have passed since the original fairs in Dresden and Vienna, they are just as popular as they ever were. And the tradition has expanded beyond Europe, with Christmas market found all over the globe. Traders start setting up their stalls in late November or early December so that they are ready on the first Sunday of Advent – the traditional date of opening the markets for the festive period. They run for several weeks – some close on Christmas Eve while others continue until the end of the year or even Epiphany on 6 January.

Until recently in Quebec, Christmas markets were considered exclusively as a commercial activity. Their cultural nature is now being recognised, thanks to the hard work we have been achieving in Montreal for many years along with our partners.
In addition to extending the tourist season, Christmas markets and winter events in general celebrate the delightful “northernness” of a city like Montreal. They offer the city an opportunity to proudly assume its status as a cold weather destination. It is also an opportunity to build bridges around the Christmas tradition within the city – a city as multicultural as Montreal – and outside the city, for example with Alsace, this region of France famous for its Christmas markets, with which we are currently creating a strong partnership.

Line Basbous, Executive Director of La Lutinerie, Montreal

Twinkling with lights and filled with local delicacies, the fairs are usually held in central parts of cities, with the organisers working hard to attract visitors and buyers. The famous fair in Singapore boasts a tree soaring to 20 metres and a vast Santa’s Grotto, and even a seven-storey mirror maze. The fair on Mount Pilatus in Switzerland is accessible by cable car, with visitors sipping their mulled wine at a height of over 2,000 metres above sea level! Barcelona’s favourite market is the Fair of St Lucia, opening on the saint’s day on 13 December.

If you head to a city such as Berlin and Vienna, you may find it difficult to find the main market, as different districts hosting their own fairs, all of which have a nativity scene at the centre.

Various city fairs, the Christmas fair in particular, create and spread the festive mood and Christmas spirit in the city. Over the course of six weeks, the Vilnius Christmas Village with its Christmas tree form a special element of the project “Christmas in Vilnius”: a gathering place, and of course the main attraction for Vilnius residents and guests, especially foreign tourists. It is a place where local craftspeople present their handiworks  and delicacies, reflecting time-honoured traditions and flavours of our country. The Vilnius Christmas Village, located in the historic town square, makes a significant contribution to stimulating the economy during the winter season. It attracts visitors from other cities in the country and abroad, and it also promotes local businesses.Various fairs which take place in Vilnius in different seasons influence the rhythm of the city. And the impact of the Christmas Village on the city and its image in the country and in the international arena is unequivocally positive and significant.
Paulius Jurgutis, Director of the Vilnius Cultural Center


Christmas Market around Vilnius Christmas Tree, Vilnius, 2019, photo by Saulius Žiūra

December markets held in major city spaces can be huge. The main market in Vienna, spread out in front of the Town Hall, holds over 200 stalls, and there’s a huge ice skating rink – all with a discreet accompaniment of the Christmas carol Silent Night penned in Austria. Locals also have a secret about another famous fair: in St. Wolfgang, about an hour by car from Vienna, every Wednesday during Advent the market is illuminated by candlelight alone, creating a truly fairytale atmosphere.

When you head to a Christmas market, make sure you try the local delicacies! In Dresden don’t miss Christstollen – a yeast bread filled with candied fruit, nuts and marzipan and dusted with icing sugar. Throughout Germany, Christmas fairs are accompanied by mugs of mulled wine or cinnamon-infused mulled cider, spiced gingerbread and decorated prune figurines known as Zwetschgenmännla. There are also stalls filled with candied almonds, and slightly less romantic but no less delicious grilled sausages. 

Budapest is immersed in the delicious aroma of cinnamon accompanying the spit-baked chimney cakes known locally as kürtőskalács. They taste best in the run-up to Christmas! Fair in Zagreb – three-time winner of the European Best Destinations award – is famous for its honey and cinnamon cookies medenjaci. Kraków’s speciality is grilled smoked oscypek cheese served with cranberry sauce to cut the saltiness. In Prague you simply must sample a glass of grog – a blend of rum, hot water, lemon and sugar. Things are equally busy in Northern Europe: Göteborg is famous for its huge Santa’s Grotto and snacks of smoked reindeer.

Christmas fairs intertwine charming traditions with the excitement of being out in the crisp winter air. On December evenings, their dazzling lights help us forget the dreary weather, and the aroma of roast chestnuts brings a smile to everyone’s face. And for those complaining that they’re not the same as they used to be, seven hundreds ago you’d find nothing but raw meat, so surely things are looking up!


Christmas Fair, Kraków, photo by Łukasz Cioch, LCMedia.pl

 


Bartek Kieżun
Author, food journalist, cook and cultural anthropologist. Twice-winner of the Magellan Award for his cookbooks exploring Italy and Portugal, and winner of the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award for his book on Istanbul. He is a lecturer at the Monument Interpretation Centre.

The text was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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