Cashing in on Christmas in Germany

A dispatch from Nuremberg

By / December 2013

Thousands of miles from Black Friday sales, stampeding mobs, and late-night deal hunters, the holiday shopping traditions at Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt take a different form. More sublime. More swill. But consumerist nonetheless.

Beginning the last Friday before the first Sunday of Advent (roughly the last weekend of November), outdoor bazars occupy the streets of nearly every city and hamlet in Germany. Dating back as far as the 15th century, these markets were the primary outlet for gift getting.

Long before Hitler made Nuremberg the rally point for his Nazi propaganda, this city was known as a toy town. The local toy-making industry, which still hosts the largest international toy fair in the world, boosted the reputation of the Christkindlesmarkt. Nuremberg became the Lego Land of Medieval Germany.

Today, Nuremberg is still known as the prime destination for market goers in Bavaria. Tourists, domestic and international, descend on the main square and over 200 stalls of carved nativities, sugar plum dolls, and candied nuts. Not to mention the gallons of gluhwein, a simmering concoction of red wine mulled with cinnamon, citrus, and cloves.

Although passers through seem to enjoy the merriment, some locals prefer to keep their distance. Increasingly, many are disenfranchised with the frenzied holiday environment, with the crowds, with the foreign tourists, with the high prices.

“Never go on a Saturday afternoon,” says Toni, who manages a hotel in the city with her husband. “We take our kids on the weeknights, but locals never go on weekends.” In fact, Toni now does all of her Christmas shopping in November before the market opens. “At Christmastime,” she says, “Nuremberg is just like Munich in October.”

Florian, a 27 year-old native of Erlangen just to the north of Nuremberg, grew up going to the market every winter. Now he no longer feels the need. “You go to Munich or Nuremberg during the festivals and all you hear is English and Chinese.” And, he adds, it’s all become too expensive. “You pay 10 euro just for one liter of beer.”

Despite the thronging tourists, Nuremberg manages to maintain much of its old-world charm. Stone ramparts and a castle from the Holy Roman Empire overlook the festivities. Brass bands lighten the air with standard hymns. Homemade baked goods, candles, and pottery fill the stalls. Most of the ornaments and decorations are carved of wood. Church choirs offer concerts nightly.

Beyond the sanctioned confines and manicured booths of the official market, many others capitalize on the season. Subway stations turn into recital halls. Back street performers blow bubbles and do tricks, anything to make a buck. Just down the road from Nuremberg’s main square, even Saint Nicholas is in the business of receiving instead of giving. He stands. He plays his accordion. He motions for money.


Brian McKanna is an EthnoTraveler contributor.