Christmas markets are best seen at night: It's easier to keep illusions alive. In the dark, makeshift wooden stalls groaning with wooden toys look like Santa's workshop. Kiosks wreathed with curtains of hanging ornaments shimmer in the moonlight; wandering the rows of stalls, a visitor can feel like an elf filling orders. Look up and there's always a towering fir tree covered in sparkling lights. Breathe deeply and you'll pick up the peppery, cinnamony scent of mulled wine – its Christmasy smell warming your soul before you've swallowed a drop.
At the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg (384 years old, and one of Europe's best known Christmas Markets), the dark also helps you temporarily put aside an awful history. The town is so synonymous with the Second World War – Hitler's infamous Nuremberg Laws, Nazi rallies, Allied bombing that destroyed much of the medieval old town and the Nuremberg Trials – that it is hard to think of much else when you arrive. And when a tour guide explains that, hundreds of years before Hitler, the city rulers destroyed a Jewish ghetto to make room for the Hauptmarkt (main town square), upon which the market stands, well, you're also glad the dark hides the shock on your face.
Christmas Markets are a huge draw in Europe, from the beginning of December to Christmas Eve. There are hundreds – one website lists 69 major markets in Germany alone – and they attract millions of visitors each year. At most, you won't find plastic toys or fake mistletoe, or food sold with disposable cutlery. And you won't hear I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. In Germany, where many Christmas icons originated, the markets are still influenced by tradition, and avoid the fussiness of Victorian-style Christmas themes. (Pagans don't do doilies.) But for all the Old World charm and wooden toys, the vibe is current – the markets are full of young professionals gossiping over mulled gluhwein and raclette, and young families lining up at the sausage grills. There's even a German market app.
In North America, we get steamrollered by the season long before anyone wants it to begin. Consumerism runs rampant and mandatory shopping can ruin the holiday. Buying Lego online is easy – but soulless. Hanging fake garland is convenient, but an empty derivative of the ancient ritual (there's no fragrant scent to ward away dark spirits).
For me, trimming the tree with coffee-shop ornaments (a Timbit snowman, a ceramic Starbucks venti) was the last straw. I'm not looking to find the true meaning of Christmas in a Christmas Market (shame on me if I did), but I do need to reignite the retail spirit of the season.
For centuries, Nuremberg has been known for its artisans, toy craftsmen and metalworkers. Even today, this is still the place to buy exquisite handmade toys and crafts. So I set out among the more than 180 stalls with high hopes. I'm trying to find a wooden toy that will take my eight-year-old's mind off the piles of plastic blocks he'll be given on Dec. 25. And a less-toxic option for my preteen, whose wish list includes magnetic nail polish.
Nuremberg is also famous for its gingerbread – but it's better than gingerbread, it's lebkuchen. The soft cake-like cookie is made from a 600-year-old recipe seasoned with a potent mix of cloves, ginger, mace, cinnamon and nutmeg. The spices were once believed to be aphrodisiacs – no wonder the lineup into local baker Lebkuchen-Schmidt is so long.
After nearly an hour of browsing, the crowds are thick and unmoving. Apparently, I've arrived on the opening day, and Nuremberg's Christmas Angel is about to officially launch her Christkindlesmart.
Suddenly, the stall lights go out, and thousands of people turn and look up at the Gothic church. A spotlight finds a young woman with curly blond hair in flowing gold and white robes standing with a brass band and a choir on the balcony. A fanfare plays. When it stops, the angel slowly spreads our her arms and begins her annual speech. The crowd listens in near complete silence (kids who start chatting are quickly hushed). A choir on the balcony sings Stille Nacht and concludes with another popular Christmas song. All around me, young and old, packed shoulder to shoulder, sing along. The moment is remarkably moving, even if I don't understand a word.
When the crowd thins the search continues and, eventually, I find the right gift for my son. It looks like a Rubik's Cube made of wood, but with a flick of the wrist it stretches out into a long double helix. It's the perfect puzzle for a kid who likes to put things together.
The holiday markets of Regensburg, Germany's only surviving medieval city, are scattered throughout the cobblestone old town. The rain and sleet don't let up during my visit, but the allure of this UNESCO World Heritage site works its magic, and there's a palpable happiness among vendors and visitors – and it's not just the gluhwein or the kids clamouring to get on the carousel.
Maybe it has something to do with all the ornaments depicting the magic mushroom, also known as the fly agaric. I see its pretty red cap with white polka dots everywhere. It's now a symbol of luck, but centuries ago pagan medicine men knew how to put its mind-altering abilities to good use. Some scholars note the connection between the Siberian myths of shamans riding reindeer sleighs (and how the animals were believed to get "high" by eating the wild 'shroom) and the modern-day Santa, who pretty much does the same thing. But I really don't want to explain that to my preteen, so I pass on the mushroom ornaments.
Then I see a bunch of wooden carvings that are smoking and smell fantastic. Each rotund figure is dressed differently: There are golfers, skiers, hausfraus, chimney sweeps, old men and seasonal characters. They all look mildly surprised, with a round O-shaped mouth and some sort of pipe in hand. A lit incense cone is placed inside the "smoking man," as they are called, which billows out perfumed coils of smoke. The illusion is adorable, and since it contradicts our family's usual anti-smoking message it will definitely captivate my daughter. I buy a St. Nicholas figure and a box of frankincense.
I pick up more incense cones at one of the 200 stalls in Frankfurt's old town. Frankfurt's market is more than 600 years old, but for the first time there's a gay and lesbian-themed, pink-hued market just around the corner. It will definitely dispel any lingering notions that these fairs are no more than an outdoor church bazaar.
This night, 50 bells from 10 churches and cathedrals ring out in an onslaught of sound as the crowds pour into the square. There's bratwurst to munch, a double-decker wooden carousel to ride, decorations to buy and friends to meet. It's getting darker, but the lights on the 30-metre-high tree cast a cheery glow. Despite the chill, I'm all warm inside – and I haven't touched a drop of gluhwein. Operation Christmas Kick-start is a success.
CRUISING YOUR WAY TO CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Christmas markets are not all the same. A river cruise is one way to see as many as possible, and only unpack once. Here are a few select cruises to choose from.
A-Rosa In 2013, this luxe German line is catering to North Americans. Its eight-night Rhine Christmas Markets cruise stops at seven ports in Germany and France with a magical market in just about every one. A-Rosa cruises are truly all-inclusive: shore tours, a 24-hour open bar, all port charges, airfare from North America, transfers and gratuities are included. Best of all, its new ships sport chic spas and saunas with windows to let you watch the riverside float by. Staterooms from $5,276 (U.S.). 1-855-552-7672; arosacruises.com
AmaWaterways Another high-end choice. Book here for longer 11 or 13-day cruises down the Danube or Rhine rivers. Prices start at $2,895 (U.S.), but do not include airfare or transfers. 1-800-626-0126; amawaterways.com
Avalon Waterways Choose from up to 10 different Christmastime cruises lasting 5 to 16 days along the Main, Rhine and Danube rivers. Prices vary. 1-877-797-8791; avalonwaterways.com
CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN CANADA
No trips to Europe in your near future? Get your Christmas-market fix closer to home.
Toronto: The Christmas Market at the Distillery District wraps up this weekend. Among the brick-lined streets and restored Victorian warehouses you'll find carollers, a 13-metre Christmas tree, mulled wine/beer gardens (no walking around the market freely with a cup here), a Ferris wheel and many hand-crafted ornament stalls. And, of course, lots of gingerbread. Free entry; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., torontochristmasmarket.com
Vancouver: Open until Dec. 24, Vancouver's Christmas Market features German toy and ornament vendors, real lebkuchen, gluhwein sold in collectible mugs, wurst stalls and, oddly enough, alpaca scarfs from Ecuador and wooly hats from Nepal. It's set up in front of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Tickets $2 to $5, children under seven are free. 11 a.m. to
9 p.m., Dec. 24: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; vancouverchristmasmarket.com
The writer travelled as a guest of A-ROSA river cruises. The company did not review or approve this story.