German Christmas markets are world famous and one of the most bizarre and cozy traditions of old Europe. One would like to think that it is a peculiar idea to hold a market in winter. It’s snowing, it’s dark and you’re freezing. And instead of staying at home, people meet outside to eat and drink. How does one come up with such an idea?
German Christmas markets date back to medieval sales fairs and markets that gave citizens the opportunity to stock up on meat and food. Usually, however, these took place during the fairer seasons of the year. The first “December markets” did not exist until the 13th century. In 1296 the merchants of Vienna were however granted the privilege by Duke Albrecht I of Austria to hold a “December market” to supply the Viennese population. In 1310, a St. Nicholas market in Munich was first mentioned in a document. In 1384, King Wenceslas granted the city of Bautzen in Saxony the right to hold a free meat market every Saturday from Michaelmas Day (September 29) until Christmas.
The first real Christmas market was then held in Dresden, Saxony, in 1434. This “Striezelmarkt” goes back to a privilege of the Saxon Elector Frederick II, who allowed a market on the Altmarkt “on the day before Christmas Eve”. With few exceptions, it has been held on Dresden’s Altmarkt ever since, and thus in 2022 for the 588th time.
The Dresden Christmas Market is the oldest Christmas market in the world and was voted this year’s favorite among the Christmas markets in German-speaking countries.Travelbook
Climate change and warming up on the market
Back to the big freeze question: It may be that a climate anomaly contributed to the invention of Christmas markets. Their emergence coincides with the end of the Medieval Warm Period (MWP). This was an interval of comparatively warm climate that began after 900 and ended before 1400. So it became colder. One can therefore theorize that warming-up markets with the famous hot wine (the Glühwein) countered the freezing.
And the Dresden Striezelmarkt? What’s that?
Interestingly, the word ‘Striezel’ as such is unknown in Saxony today. It derives from the Middle High German strutzel or strützel, which in turn comes from the Old High German struzzil. However, that words origin and how it came to Saxony is totally unclear (and thus doesn’t add much to enligthen us). However, a Heiligenstriezel is known in Austria and Bavaria as a yeast pastry braided in the shape of a plait. It is baked on All Saints’ Day and is said to replicate braids cut off in mourning.
This Austrian Striezel is first mentioned in 1688 by Ignaz Ritter, pastor of Saxen in Upper Austria, in his book on customs and habits. This place name, Saxen, is first documented in 823 and is of patronymic origin as the foundation of a man named Sahso, “the Saxon”. This indicates a settlement of Saxons in Carolingian times. So who first came up with the word Striezel, the Saxons or the Austrians, remains to be determined.
Today it is said in Dresden that a Striezel is the same as the Stollen baked in Saxony. And this, in turn, is understood as a reference to the long silver mining tradition of the area, that is, as an image of a miner’s stollen (the tunnel of the mine). Sometimes, however, it is also said that the Stollen represents the Christ Child wrapped in white linen. However, since Saxony has been Protestant since 1539, Santa Claus, Knecht Ruprecht, is more likely to come to the children here than the little Jesus (more often in the southern parts of Germany).
Inspired to now visit Dresden during the Christmas season?
Now, if you are planning to visit Dresden’s Striezelmarkt during the Christmas season, you should know that it is only the largest of the Christmas markets in Dresden. But there are many others that are definitely worth visiting. Dresden and the nearby Ore Mountains are Christmas country.
Medieval style: There is the picturesque medieval Christmas market in the stable yard of the Dresden Residenzschloss, the oldest tournament complex in Europe. Here there are dressed-up vendors, medieval food, lights that imitate falling snow and archery for children. Plus, groups play medieval music and you’re surrounded by a wonderful Renaissance site. For the somewhat special visitor, there is also the option of a bare-naked dip in a tub (be sure to make reservations. The fun is oddly popular).
19th Century-Style: Just in front of the castle is the Biedermeier market in front of the Frauenkirche. It’s set in the 19th century and by Ludwig Richter’s paintings. The souvenir to bring from this market is the little chimney sweeper made out of baked plums, a figure from one of Richter’s paintings.
The Artist’s Style: A little further up the Elbe you will find the artists’ market at the Blaues Wunder (bridge), at Körnerplatz. If you love arts and crafts and a cozy retro atmosphere, this is the place to be.
Fortress Style: And for those who like it truly romantic and are mobile (or take the train), the Christmas market at the ancient Königstein Fortress in Saxon Switzerland is recommended on weekends. Its attractions are burning fires, actors, musicians and a climb through the forest, which you can also be done with torches.
There are many other markets in the area. For example, in Dresden’s Neustadt, in the ancient Pirna or in the highly gothic Meissen.
And then, of course, it’s absolutely worth a trip to the Ore Mountains, whose mining traditions and processions have recently made it onto the World Heritage List.