A visitor from Timonium offered her endorsement of the Christmas market she visited at City Hall Plaza in downtown Baltimore.
“It’s a little bit overcast, like German winter weather,” Christine Naylor said. “And the temperature is just about right, too.”
She stood in Zion Lutheran Church’s garden at Lexington and Holliday streets near Baltimore’s City Hall along with other patient lunch-seekers. They eagerly awaited a paper cup filled with ladles of goulash soup, a peppery antidote to a chilly, late November Saturday morning.
The reputation of the church’s Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas Market, is well established.
Though the doors to the market-bazaar opened at 10 a.m., a line formed a little before 9. There was still a queue at noon ready to ascend a flight of stairs leading to a church hall transformed into a German delicacies emporium. The market continues Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“You can’t have a market without a brass band playing Christmas songs,” said Anke Deibler, Zion’s co-pastor, who shares the historic congregation’s pulpit with her husband, Eric. She opened the morning with a bright version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” (Herbei, o ihr Gläubigen) with brass players recruited from Calvary Lutheran Church in Mount Airy.
The music was ear-filling and atmospheric, but those at the market said they were not there to hear “Silent Night.”
“I can outsell anybody in Baltimore when it comes to price," said Hans Steffen, a member of the Baltimore Kickers, a soccer organization founded in 1953 that co-produces the market. “I used to work for the German military and I deal with three different food wholesalers. Our stuff is fresh. We rented a U-Haul and drove to pick up our shipment in Newcastle, Delaware. We are all retired and have the time. We saved $200 in delivery costs alone.”
He said he and others in his club were visiting German cities and their Christmas markets in 1997 and decided to replicate one in Baltimore. His club joined with Zion Lutheran Church to have the proper location. The church, he said, is well known for its other German cultural outreach festivities, including its annual October sour beef dinner.
Steffen pointed to the long tables of packaged German cakes, breads and cookies that he buys in bulk from wholesalers based in Germany. It’s a version of Rhineland Costco and his customers were filling cartons of with liquor-filled chocolates and pfeffernusse cookies redolent of anise.
“There’s some real international capitalism at work here,” said Bernard “Bernie” Penner, a member of the Christkindlmarkt committee and the son of the church’s former pastor, Friedemann H.B. Penner.
Penner feels the heart of the market is a 30-foot-long set of tables holding the fruit bread iced with marzipan. It’s known as Dresdner stollen and comes packaged in cellophane or in fancy embossed tin boxes.
“Some stores put a premium on these German delicacies, but what we sell here is the real thing and they are cheap,” Penner said.
Carol Smith, a vendor who was selling her handmade antique-reproduction holiday cards and ornaments, said she heard about the market from a clerk at a fancy North Baltimore grocery store.
“She took me aside and whispered, ‘Go to Zion,’ ” Smith said. “This is the place to come; that’s why the line is so long. People come for the reasonable prices, too.”
Shoppers picked up tins of canned herring and jars of German red cabbage and sauerkraut at the adjoining grocery table.
Some, like Terry Prajsner, bought the spicy mustard that he immediately slathered over a bauernwurst sandwich he bought from a stall on the Gay Street side of the church grounds. Others enjoyed a beer on tap or a mulled wine.
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“It’s a good crowd this year, better than usual,” Prajsner said. “Whenever the weather is good and the wind isn’t blowing, they turn up.”