Inside a grand tent shimmering in tinsel and red-and-green streamers, children shriek with delight, spinning hand-carved wooden tops around the floor. Across the room, their parents marvel at a craftsman's wood-carved Nativity scenes. Nearby, hand-blown glass ornaments cast prisms upon people strolling past. Aromas of glühwein (cinnamon and clove mulled wine), gingerbread and Weiner schnitzel fill the air. Outside in the courtyard, a group of carolers begin to sing. It's another enchanted evening at the Christkindl Market.
In search of a meaningful and memorable experience for themselves and their children, many holiday shoppers are seeking out such Christkindls and other European-inspired markets filled with seasonal handicrafts, traditional holiday treats and festivities. Beginning about mid-November and extending through December, these markets are on the rise, providing places of cheer and nostalgia.
Germans say that their Christmas markets evolved from "winter markets," where folks stocked up on supplies to subsist through the cold months, and from the celebration of Advent, when Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. Soon, craftspeople began setting up booths filled with baskets, toys, spices, nuts and gingerbread treats that people gave to one another on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), Christmas and New Year's Day. In 1434, the Striezelmarkt, dedicated to Christmas-related items, opened in Dresden; it still operates today. It wasn't long before other German communities began their own Christkindl markets.
Christkindl-style markets are all over Europe nowadays. Happily, Americans don't necessarily need a passport to visit one. Here in the U.S., Christkindls originated in German-American communities and have more recently begun popping up in cities and towns all the way into Canada. Baltimore, with a long and rich history of German immigration, sponsors a Bavarian-themed Christmas Village (Inner Harbor, through Dec. 24) featuring about 50 booths and a beer garden.
But since every market is different, venturing out to visit other Christmas markets around the U.S. is a worthwhile getaway. Most are designed to replicate the tiny villages where their German-American population originated, featuring classical huts or tents filled with traditional food and curios, like Schwibbboge (candle arches), ornaments and miniature Nativity scenes atop music boxes that play Christmas melodies.
Kathe Wohlfahrt, the German-based seller of traditional Christmas collectibles, hosts booths at many American markets and sells Christmas pyramids. Wohlfahrt claims the tradition of pyramids was begun 200 years ago by miners who couldn't afford Christmas trees. Instead, they fashioned wooden sticks, tied at the top, and decorated them with tiny ornaments and candles. Pyramids today are designed to depict Nativity scenes and villages, and topped with propellers circulated by heat rising from the candles.
Of course, a Christmas market doesn't need to offer only European items to be authentic and appealing to those seeking one-of-a-kind gift items. Holiday markets are held in places like New York, Washington, and Toronto that feature the wares of local crafters. After studying the European model, the company UrbanSpace launched holiday markets in New York's Union Square and Columbus Circle featuring vendors from "creative industries"; 75 percent of the booths represent goods of local craftspeople and small businesses, and the rest is a juried selection of international artisans.
"The major difference between us and the markets in Europe is that our focus isn't only Christmas handicrafts – ours feature local designers and businesses who produce functional gifts: clothing, jewelry, electronics and foods, like craft pickles and mustards," says Julie Felton, pop up market director of UrbanSpace. "Our markets are job creators for local craftsmen, located in the epicenter of mass-manufacturing, much in the way the markets of Europe began." The markets have been so successful that this year the company has taken over and refashioned the holiday kiosks in Bryant Park.
If you are eager to experience one of these places for yourself, you don't have to wait long. Below we have uncovered some of the most exceptional Christkindl and holiday markets, near and not too far away.
Christmas City Christkindlmarkt
Dec. 1-4, 8-11 and 15-18.
On Christmas Eve 1741, this town was christened Bethlehem by Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Saxony, Germany, patron of its founding Moravian community. In 1937, Bethlehem's Chamber of Commerce, mindful of Bethlehem's first Christmas, nicknamed the town Christmas City, USA. Its revered Weihnachtsmarkt is held on the reimagined grounds of the historic Bethlehem Steel plant, which once employed many of the town's German immigrants. Rather than huts, vendors exhibit under Christmas-themed tents.
Don't miss: Along with handicrafts and traditional German holiday foodstuff, visitors can work with a glassblower to create original tree ornaments, and kids can "spin" color onto toy tops they watch being hand-carved.
Stay: Hotel Bethlehem's guest rooms offer 'luxe bedding, private Italian-marble baths and views of the historic district. From $219. hotelbethlehem.com.
Info: Tickets: $13; children $5. Bethlehem is drivable, just160 miles from Baltimore. christmascity.org/christkindlmarkt/.
Mifflinburg Christkindl Market
You'll feel as though you've been transported to Germany at this three-day market, claiming to be the oldest authentic Christkindl in the U.S. Here is a live Nativity scene, festive huts filled with craftsman demonstrating time-honed traditions like spanbaümes (wood-spun trees), weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramids) and zwetschgenmännie (figurines crafted from prunes). The local Methodist church bakes lebkuchen, gingerbread hearts with German phrases. Greeting cards mailed from the market will be marked with Mifflinburg's annual Christkindl cancellation stamp, a tradition begun in Austria in 1695.
Don't miss: Kinderworld's Elf School: where Mrs. Clause teaches kids to make musical instruments; Firliputzli House: where children listen to the story of the mischievous German angel Firliputzli; Hilby the Skinny German Juggle Boy: internationally renowned Berlin street performer, an Alpine zither player; Alphenrose Schuhplattler: 14th-century Bavarian dances featuring costumed performers, and historians staging talks on such topics as antique German Christmas ornaments.
Stay: Vicksburg Inn, a circa-1866 Victorian B&B featuring period furnishings and full breakfast. From $109. vicksburginn.com/.
Info: Mifflinburg is drivable, about 135 miles from Baltimore. mifflinburgchristkindlmarket.com.
Lake Mohawk Weihnachtsmarkt
Billed as New Jersey's largest Christmas Market, this open-air Weihnactsmarkt features charming custom-crafted wooden huts on the boardwalk fronting beautiful Lake Mohawk. The entertainment is nonstop: traditional German polkas, a-cappella groups, storytelling and demonstrations by crafters, including custom wood-carved ornaments of nutcrackers, windmills, carousels and reindeer. Keeping within the true spirit of giving, the market donates a portion of its proceeds to local children's charities.
Don't miss: The Brau (brew) Tent, serving German beer and Bavarian dishes including sauerbraten, schnitzel and potato pancakes.
Stay: Crystal Springs Resort, featuring a tropical-themed Biosphere pool complex with Jacuzzi and slide, two spas, six golf courses, three restaurants and luxurious guest rooms. From $229. crystalgolfresort.com.
Info: Sparta is in New Jersey's rural Sussex County, 215 miles from Baltimore. lakemohawkgermanchristmasmarket.com.
Toronto Christmas Market
Through Dec. 22, closed Mondays.
It's worth traveling across our northern border to this European-inspired market set upon the cobblestone streets of Toronto's Distillery District. Custom-built wooden cabins showcase the crafts of artisans from Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, in addition to local works. Some crowd-pleasing flavor bites include baked "Black Forest" apple strudel, French-Canadian poutine and potato tornado (deep fried on a skewer, served with apple sauce or sour cream). There are daily events and activities, the annual World Wednesdays featuring global music and performances, elf sing-a-longs and the market's beloved caroling competition: an attempt to beat the world record of largest number of Christmas carolers singing at once. Christmas-headlining entertainment includes St. Nicholas arriving on a white horse to recount the story of his legacy, and on St. Lucia Day (Swedish Christmas), the Queen of Light arrives, placing candles in wreaths on children's heads and singing carols.
Don't miss: The Pink Forest, featuring magical twinkling pink trees surrounding a 50-foot Christmas tree.
Stay: The Westin Harbour Castle, about a five-minute walk to the market, offers a package (including breakfast, (weekend) tickets and coupons for some booths. From $249. westinharbourcastletoronto.com/en/toronto-christmas-market.
Info: Air Canada flies nonstop from BWI from about $330. Market tickets required only on weekends: $6. torontochristmasmarket.com.
Holiday Shops at Winter Village
New York City.
Through Jan. 2.
More than 125 vendors operate from glass "jewel-box" kiosks in Bryant Park's Winter Village, selling locally crafted ornaments, jewelry, apparel, toys and food. The village features a carousel and a free-admission ice rink, where folks can rent skates and watch shows on ice.
Don't miss: Heimat Berlin's luminous paper stars, Joyfullook's hand-designed art tights, and crystal animator kits in the Eye Think kiosk. Definitely sample homemade carved Raclette (baked cheese), Hungarian chimney cakes and United Chocolateworks' chocolate wrenches, hammers and toys.
Stay: Just two blocks away, The Archer is simply magical at Christmas. Nightly turndown service features peppermint-flavored macaroons, red-white-and-green sprinkled Rice Krispies' treats and holiday-themed fortune cookies And there are daily prizes for kids who find "Archie," the resident Elf on the Shelf, who hides each night leading up to Christmas. From $219. archerhotel.com.
Info: The market is in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library, between 40 and 41 Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues. wintervillage.org/shop
12th Annual Downtown Holiday Market
Through Dec 23.
This market showcases 150 mostly regional fine artisans, crafters and boutique businesses of ethically produced goods. Exhibitors rotate, so the daily offerings vary. There is a selection of international crafts, whose proceeds partially go toward supporting causes represented by those who produced them. Each day features a schedule of entertainment including traditional holiday music and contemporary music acts performing jazz, country, blues, gospel and heritage sounds.
Don't miss: Handmade wooden watches from "renewable" South American woods, art maps produced by a professional cartographer, "forever" glass nail files, and purses fashioned from recycled books.
Stay: Washington is an easy day trip from Baltimore.
Info: On the F Street sidewalk (between 7th and 9th Sts. NW) in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery. downtownholidaymarket.com.