The anticipation of the first snowfall, imminent chocolate overdoses waiting in Christmas stockings, piano strings warmed for the 10th rendition of Carol of the Bells: these winter festivities and rituals charm and warm the soul, regardless of which holiday is being celebrated during this magical season.
Prior to spending Christmastime in Cologne, Germany, my festivity craze had always been left somewhat unsatisfied. I never knew the warming capabilities of Glühwein on a freezing night, the satisfaction of a Rostbratwurst after the 5th cup of mulled wine, or the crunch of a fresh Flammkuchen under a sky of twinkling star-shaped lights. The hearty food, the bustling atmosphere, the dressed up vendors, and the amiable intoxication of locals all fit together to create the perfect Christmastime picture.
The edible and drinkable components of German “Weihnachtsmärkte” (Christmas markets) contribute the most to the idyllic Christmas cheer. Most of the eating and drinking is done standing at counters or at scattered barrels, making it easy to nibble one’s way through the markets or strike up conversations with other eaters. The beverage areas are the market gathering spaces, as there’s nothing better to take your mind off of numbing hands like riveting conversation and laughter. Exploring the rows upon rows of stalls, tasting new foods, chatting with vendors, and trying on lots of hats — it makes for quite the adventure.
The market food, specifically, consists of both treats to take home for the holidays as well as typical German celebration food. Meat tends to dominate the food experience at these Christmas markets, as it is a focal point in German cuisine, no matter what the season is. The markets have the standard distribution of a Bratwurst stand every five steps or so, but, fortunately, they are also gastronomically expansive enough so that there is much more than just Wurst to be sampled.
Germany offers hundreds of Christmas markets across the country, although some cities attract a stronger crowd for their market size and variety. Cologne, in Western Germany, has around five Christmas markets that run through the entire month of December, with each one being a uniquely festive experience. The famous “Kölner Dom” (Cologne Cathedral) makes a stunning backdrop for the astoundingly large Christmas tree and winding market stalls. The Old Market preserves the authentic charm with its location in the old town and carnivalesque attractions. The Angel’s Market wins the prize for its fantastical nature with its somewhat interstellar theme, and Cologne’s harbor Christmas market offers stronger fish specialties than the rest. As I experienced, five days in Cologne at this time of year could hardly exhaust all the options offered.
Shielded from the icy air by layers of wool sweaters and funny-looking hats, every year, locals and visitors wander through Cologne’s many stalls of handmade goods, clothing, woodworking, cheese, Süßigkeiten (sweets), regional dishes, meat, and more meat. I recall my own introduction to these delights, my first night in the Old Town: greeted by clusters of people gnawing on long skewers of lightly-charred pork brushed with a sweet sauce, I decided it best to dive boldly into the tasting festivities. After partaking in the footlong skewers, I followed with a standard Rostbratwurst mit Senf (with mustard). The Wurst selection at the Christmas market was standard German fare, served alongside pints of beer; therefore, it was not a great culinary surprise, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. The handheld nature of the Bratwurst made it necessary to eat hastily, as mittens could only stay off for about two minutes before one lost all mobility in the fingers.
Meandering through to the beverages, which were sold by costumed vendors in cabin-esque, multi-story stalls, I was confronted with a plethora of possibilities: Weißer Glögg, Apple Cider, Glühwein, Glühmost, beer, and Eierpunsch.
Glühwein, or mulled wine, traditionally consists of red wine, mulling spices, citrus, sugar, and sometimes a supplementary brandy shot (mit Schuss) to top it off. Glühmost, a warm drink closely related to apple cider, incorporates other citrus ingredients, adding the important winter-defense vitamin C intake. Eierpunsch is an egg-yolk based, warm, alcoholic drink often warmed with white wine. Glögg, the Scandinavian variation of mulled wine, is also frequently offered at German Christmas markets, though Glühwein remains the standard, traditional Christmas beverage of Germany. One of the paramount aspects of the Christmas market drinking culture is the vehicle itself — a sizable mug adorned with charming festive images, costing only a small deposit.
Faced with so many choices, I found only one option. Try them all! The cold would only become more bearable after a series of sweet, hot, spiced drinks, all heftily spiked, as I would later discover. The drinks provided everything necessary for enjoying the market to its fullest. A warm, spiced tingle soon settled, circulating through my extremities, planting a smile on my face, and letting foreign words flow off my tongue.
Wandering around again with a new drink-induced cheer, I began to construct a defense of German cuisine in my head. The numerous times I had heard German food described as bland, uninteresting, or just “meat and potatoes” simply did not align with what I was experiencing at this Christmas market. I had already encountered some exquisite, yet hearty, Christmas foods. To reconfirm this vindication of German food, I ordered a classic Speck und Zwiebel Flammkuchen (a bacon and onion German flatbread, which originates from the region bordering Alsace, France). Cooked in wood-fired ovens, the pastry-like dough differentiates itself drastically from Italian pizza. It’s light, tasty, and portable for walking through the market. Still pecking at the Flammkuchen, I strolled by the Backfisch, tasty fish eaten in small rolls, but at this point I was unable to press myself to continue eating.
Disregarding the blood sugar elevation I was surely experiencing, the time for dessert had arrived. Lebkuchen, German gingerbread, was first on the list. I nibbled away as I avoided the alluring smoke from Nutella-crepe-topped griddles, finding my way towards extensive cheese stands instead. Dismayed by the all-too-shallow depths of my stomach, I picked up a Weihnachtsstollen to bring back home for Christmas. Stollen lies somewhere between cake and bread and is filled with zesty fruit peels and dried fruits, marzipan, and a spot of rum — although regional Stollens are often varied in recipe. I entertained myself traipsing along the rows of decorated Christmas cookies, so intricately iced, I don’t know who could bring themselves to actually eat them.
The German Christmas Markets, in contrast to more practical markets, are made for lingering. Strolling through, eating, and trying not to freeze is not quite enough. By 9pm, throngs of Germans stand laughing, conversing, propelled through the evening by warm mugs and pints of beer. Some of the Christmas markets hold performances to drink along with; children entertain themselves with ice-rinks and music while parents say Prost, clinking glasses. Once the cold had truly set in, as had the five mugs of various mulled wines, I found myself fumbling my way through a German conversation with some 20-year-olds from a nearby town. They had hopped on the train for a Friday night of Glühwein with friends in the bustling Christmas Market of Cologne’s old town.
I whiled the remainder of the night away with lively conversation (or as lively as a beginning German speaker can manage), many more mugs of Glühwein and Apfelwein, and some Pommes with plenty of mayonnaise to top it all off. I went to sleep with knitted market socks on my feet and a now insurmountable standard for an ideal Christmastime.