German winter, notorious for steel grey skies, bone penetrating dampness, and rare slivers of sunshine, is even drearier this year in the absence of the famed Christmas markets. In early November, the city of Nuremberg, with perhaps the most famous of the Christmas markets, decided to cancel its festivities because of the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like sad falling dominoes, the other cities hosting these annual yuletide affairs, Frankfurt, Baden Baden, Munich, Berlin, and so many other large and small townships around Germany, one by one, followed suit. Without these vibrant ancient festivities, the gloominess of the weather – combined with a dour Prussian mentality – wraps Germany in a seemingly spiritual winter of despair, more than ever reminding the world of the need for a Savior.
Christmas markets (also called Nikolausmarkt, Weinachtsmarkt in the Protestant regions of Germany, and Christkindlmarkts in the Catholic regions were born in the high Middle Ages. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Decembermarkts were opened on town squares only for a day or two to afford townspeople the opportunity to buy food after Advent fasts.
As early as 1298, in Vienna, Austria, the town government held a “December Market” that may have just been merely an extra market day. The practice of keeping markets open additional days in December slowly spread to Germany and Eastern France. Dresden, Germany’s market referred to as a Striezelmarkt – named after a cake famous in the region, began, according to local lore, when Frederick II, the elector of Saxony, approved a market to take place on the Monday before Christmas in 1434 to allow citizens, who had been fasting for Advent, to buy meat for Christmas day.
Eventually, local craftsmen introduced the selling of crafts and wares around these food markets. Before the Protestant Reformation, the main day for gift-giving occurred on St Nicholas day, December 6. Martin Luther, the original grinch, seeking to weaken the influence of the saints, introduced the idea of the Christ child delivering gifts to children on Christmas eve.
Over time, the Christkindlmarkts evolved into a four-week event marking Advent, the time of preparation for the Christ child or in the German translation, the “Christ kindle.” Still, crass holiday materialism is nothing new. An urban legend tells of a Nuremberg priest, in 1616, complaining of a lack of attendance at the Christmas Eve afternoon service because everyone was shopping in the Christmas market!
By the end of the 19th century, the markets had lost the luster of previous centuries and began to dwindle. In a macabre historic twist, in 1933, the Nazi regime, which tried to eradicate Christianity from the Christmas celebration, was responsible for reinvigorating the Nuremberg Christkindlmarkts. Hitler’s goal was to promote Nuremberg as a source of historic pride once again, which brought renewed attention and significance to the market.
In normal years, Christmas markets are found in almost every town in Germany, attracting nearly 80 million visitors per year. The city of Berlin, alone, hosts 80 different markets throughout the Advent season. Markets differ from region to region preserving much of the local traditions through various crafts and food.
In the almost 1400 markets found in Germany, small richly decorated stalls are erected in town squares where gingerbread, nuts, Christmas decorations, mittens, scarves, sausages, and the most famous of all Christmas libations, “gluvein” – a hot mulled wine – are sold. In normally taciturn German society, where habitual rule-following arouses religious fervor, the outpouring of joy and frivolity in the crisp cold evening air is impossible to describe. Coziness and warmth pour out like a star in a dark winter’s night and thaw the demeanor of even the sternest personalities.
Ironically, in post-Christian Europe, these Christmas markets are not reticent about the religious dimension of Advent. At the Nuremberg market, an adolescent representing an angel reads the Christ child poem in front of the Cathedral. In Augsburg, twenty-three “angels” appear in a pageant imitating a famous altar painting.
Markets boast living Advent calendars, and manger scenes. A dizzying array of hand-carved wooden mangers, crucifixes, and crib figurines are displayed and on sale. Cathedrals and Protestant churches sponsor seasonal musical events. Carolers move through the markets singing folklore favorites.
Silence and darkness have replaced joy and merriment this year, as local governments have suppressed public gatherings out of fear of COVID-19. For the first time since World War II, German, Austrian, and French town squares are hauntingly silent and joyless in this season. Microbes have halted fairy-tale like celebrations which bolster not only the human spirit but also human economies.
The world awaits a savior-vaccine. But the very absence of Christmas markets reminds us of the fuller humanity celebrated in the exuberance of age-old festivities and crowded family dining room tables.
We have done much in the effort to preserve individual physical health, but extraordinarily little to preserve the spiritual and emotional health of our communities. Our Savior, born into a family, in the City of David, and to the tribes of Israel, brought forth in ways, never humanly imagined, an excuse for communal celebrations, an exuberance of hope and joy manifested in little sausages, funnel cakes, and friends gathered in tight cozy groups sipping steaming hot spicy wine.
This year, in the empty dining room chairs of America and the silent town squares of Europe, we can deeply appreciate who we are in the strength and tactile closeness of physical community celebrated so beautifully and poignantly during the Christmas season. A lonely manger on a dark cold night, so many centuries ago, is the source of our celebration, our hope, our humanity, and ultimately our salvation.