The surprisingly sordid history of Germany’s Christmas markets

The surprisingly sordid history of Germany’s Christmas markets

Published December 19, 2022

14 min read

Every holiday season, Christmas markets transform the main squares of cities across Europe into winter wonderlands. Twinkling lights decorate wooden huts, and boughs adorned with holly hang from street lamps. Vendors sell hand-carved ornaments and Nativity scene figurines, alongside piping hot mugs of gluhwein (mulled wine), as Christmas carols fill the air. In Germany alone–where the tradition began–there are usually 2,500 to 3,000 holiday markets a year. Now, the markets are returning after two years of COVID-19 related closures.

Historians say preserving this cultural practice in old city centers is as important as shoring up medieval cathedrals or protecting ancient Roman ruins. They argue that Germany’s markets should be inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list, alongside French baguette making and dragon boat festivals in China.

“What makes [the markets] so important isn’t just buying an ornament,” says Dirk Spennemann, associate professor in cultural heritage management at Australia’s Charles Sturt University, who has co-written studies about the cultural heritage of Christmas markets. Spennemann says that “intangible cultural legacy” includes traditions that can be modified and reshaped with each generation.

Christmas markets certainly fit that definition. They have evolved over their long history to adapt to changing politics and social customs throughout the centuries. This includes the rise of the Nazi party and the industrial revolution.

Early Christmas markets

Europe‘s Christmas markets date back to medieval times when German territories covered a wide swath of the continent. Some of Germany’s existing Christmas markets trace their origins as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries. Dresden’s market first opened for one day on Christmas Eve in 1434. Meanwhile, the oldest evidence of Nuremberg’s Christmas market dates it to 1628, though some suspect it stretches back at least to 1530.

Spennemann says it’s unclear, however, whether these early bazaars were held for Christmas or simply took place at Christmastime. People lived in scattered communities that were within walking distance from a church that had markets for all religious feasts. The largest market was the winter one. There were many vendors selling baked goods, pottery, and even sweets if the sugar wasn’t too expensive.

There’s little record of the atmosphere of those early markets or when they shifted to offer Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, and toys. Some illustrations show wealthy Germans shopping at back-street stalls while the poor shop in the main square. Spennemann claims that these images were likely embellishments made by later era artists who desired a more idyllic Christmas past, with each social class in its own place.

The Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on Christmas markets in the early 19th century. Christmas markets grew because of rising living standards and the rise of the working class. In Berlin, for example, the Christmas market grew from 303 stalls in 1805 to about 600 in 1840. As the markets started to cater to the working-class, the Christmas market grew from

“It was seen as being seedy, even dangerous and threatening,” says Joe Perry, associate professor of modern European and German history at Georgia State University and author of Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History.

Capitalist forces also turned against the markets by the end of the 19th century. To avoid competition, the owners of new downtown department shops campaigned for them to be moved. From Berlin to Nuremberg cities moved their Christmas markets to the outskirts where they would languish for decades.

Nazis reimagine the Christmas markets

In the 1930s, Christmas markets returned to city centers across Germany–with the aid of the Nazi Party.

Christmas was a political football at the time, with politicians endeavoring to reshape its traditions to fit their anti-capitalist or atheist leanings. When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, his newly empowered political party wasted no time in transforming Christmas from a religious holiday devoted to peace on Earth to a nationalist one that extolled German heritage. As Erin Blakemore writes for History magazine, party officials inserted Nazi imagery into Nativity scenes, filled Advent calendars with party propaganda, and rewrote Christmas carols like “Silent Night” to deemphasize its Christian connotations.

These efforts weren’t unprecedented. Perry points out that the idea for a culturally German Christmas is not new. Many traditions, such as Advent calendars and Christmas trees, were thought to have originated from Germany. Martin Luther, a Protestant reformer, is often credited for being the first to light up the Christmas tree after a nighttime walk through a German forest under a starry night.

(Why do we have Christmas trees? )

Christmas markets were a natural fit in the effort to realign Christmas with Nazi ideology because they were a popular tradition that already existed. In Nuremberg, for example, Nazi mayor Willy Liebel moved the market back to the city center in 1933, as “a way to erase what he called the ‘un-German and race-alien influences’ that had inspired the market’s relocation,” Perry writes in his book.

The market also debuted an opening ceremony featuring the christkind, an angelic figure typically portrayed by a blond-haired, blue-eyed local girl. Berlin reopened its Christmas market the following year, with speeches from Nazi leaders, such as Joseph Goebbels. Soon after, Nazi politicians started to standardize stall decorations as well as the items vendors could sell. These included ornaments, toys and bratwurst made in Germany, and sugary confections.

Economics drove part of these efforts to rejuvenate the markets, says Perry. Nazi leaders believed that German-made goods would help to stimulate the economy and lift the spirits of German citizens during the Great Depression. It worked. In Berlin, 1.5 million people visited the market in 1934, a record broken two years later when two million people visited. However, economic prosperity was ended by the outbreak of World War II. In 1941, many cities shuttered their markets.

A post-war Christmas market boom

Germany’s Christmas markets came roaring back after the end of the war–and only grew in the following decades, as an economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of consumerism fueled the growth of Christmas shopping. These economic shifts transformed the Christmas markets into mass cultural events–up to a thousand tour buses full of shoppers might descend on a city’s Christmas market during any given weekend.

The Nazi’s role in reshaping the Christmas markets was largely swept under the rug, even as many of the traditions they instituted remained. When Nuremberg’s market returned in 1948, so did the christkind, albeit with a new prologue, or welcoming speech. (However, the role would continue to be given to white actresses until 2019, when the selection of a biracial teenager prompted racist outrage from far-right politicians. )

While some Germans sought to trivialize the Nazis’ role in shaping the Christmas markets, Perry points out that other German political parties through the years have sought to influence the tradition. In the early 20th century, Marxists tried to reframe Christmas as a pagan rather than a religious holiday. Later, the Communist Party of East Berlin would attempt to align Christmas with its own values. He adds that Christmas “has always had to be pushed and pulled around”.

(In Japan, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is a Christmas carol. )

Germany’s intangible cultural heritage

In Germany, meanwhile, the number of Christmas markets has also been on the rise for the last 50 years–tripling from about 950 markets in the 1970s to about 3,000 in 2019. They are used by local tourism bureaus to convince people to visit during winter’s darkest days. Tour companies have expanded from bus tours to river cruises along the Danube from Germany to Hungary to include Christmas markets.

But the pandemic interrupted all that in 2020. Although many cities attempted to recreate the markets through virtual reality portals and drive-through stalls, Spennemann and Parker argue in a study published in the journal Heritage that the lackluster response to the substitute Christmas markets highlighted the importance of the real thing.

“Clearly substitutions don’t work,” Spennemann says. “Unless you go and give people the virtual 3D experience and send them a vial of smells, it’s not going to work.”

By documenting the history of the Christmas markets, the scholars hope to lay the groundwork should Germany decide to apply for UNESCO recognition. Spennemann insists that protecting the markets does not mean that they will stop changing, but rather that it is to keep them alive through changes.

Some people insist that traditional German culture should involve wearing lederhosen, drinking from steins, but Spennemann says that “they deep-freeze culture, ritualize it and then they kill it.” Intangible culture is an expression that can change. So you have to allow for that change.”

In fact, he argues that intangible cultural traditions like the Christmas markets are so meaningful because they have evolved to represent who we are at any given time–for the better and, yes, sometimes for worse.

Christmas markets move beyond Germany

By the 1980s and 1990s, Germany’s Christmas markets had become so beloved that they became a cultural export. Cities in countries around the world–including the United States, Japan, and India–began to host their own German-style Christmas markets, complete with bratwurst, gluhwein, and twinkling lights. In the United Kingdom, the number of Christmas markets more than tripled from about 30 in 2007 to more than a hundred in 2017.

Some of the most bustling markets around the world, now back in merry force, include the Edinburgh Christmas Market, which offers drams of whisky, a Ferris wheel, and artisan stalls in the Scottish capital. Plaisirs D’Hiver (Winter Pleasures) clusters around a towering decorated spruce in the center of Brussels, Belgium, and includes chocolate sellers, live music, and a light-and-sound show. In New York City, the Union Square Holiday Market brings together nearly 200 local vendors from pottery makers and jewelry designers to hot cocoa mixers and poutine chefs.

Amy McKeever is a senior writer and editor at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter.

A previous version of this article appeared in 2021. This article has been updated to reflect the latest information.

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