Before I moved to Germany, my soon-to-be ex-employer spoke to me with great reverence about something he had experienced as a tourist and adored: die Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets.) At first, it didn’t sound all that interesting to me: kiosks full of Christmas stuff, some food, some shopping, sort of like an outdoor mall, kind of like the one every year at Union Square Park in NYC, so who cares? The quickening flare of his eyes captured my interest, however when he mentioned a key part of the festive gatherings: Glühwein.
I had enjoyed spiced wine on occasion in the USA, but never under the guise of Christmas shopping! You mean one can complete the often reviled ritual of obligatory holiday commerce whilst imbibing hot adult beverages and snacking on bratwurst and raclette?
What kind of magical Christmas life-hack is this?!
Weihnachtsmarkt, a crucial part of cultural integration
Because of the virulent, spiky crowned grinch known as COVID-19, all Weihnachtsmärkte were closed when I arrived in Berlin in 2020. A year later, even though many had already set up tents and had prepared to open, most German markets decided (in an abundance of caution during a surge of cases amidst a very tentative reopening for the fully vaccinated) to once again prohibit the festive traditions.
It wouldn’t be until December 2022 that I would step foot in an official Weihnachtsmärkt, and to initiate this very crucial part of my integration, I picked two different bazaars on opposite sides of Berlin: In West Berlin, the market at Charlottenburg Palace and in Prenzlauer Berg in the east, the market at the slightly more young and hip Kulturbrauerei.
While each market has its own vibe, offerings and demographic, both share core energies that feel very old and very human. In both scenes, open fires burn to provide warmth in the -8 degree Celsius (17 Fahrenheit) cold and small groups of harmonizing carolers as well as quartets of horns serenade the crowd with Christmas music auf Deutsch.
Food and drink are served from large wooden kiosks and there are ample tents to stand under and watch the snow fall and the people mill about. The lighting is warm and colorful, as each stall is adorned with its own take on Christmas luminescence. There are many tents where one can purchase various gifts, many by local artisans, but buying stuff is not the main focus here; at the Weihnachtsmarkt, it’s all about getting together and getting warm.
It’s about The Hang, and this style of holiday get-together has been happening every year since the 1400s.
Mainstream Christmas shopping in America can be less fun than this: traditionally underscored with blaring, nauseating croons of Christmas songs that have been covered again and again for what feels like millenia, and brightly lit with overhead fluorescents that make one feel as though one is being forced to admit under duress that “yes, I really do love the holidays, really, I swear,” the USA yuletide marketplace strikes jingle-belled terror into the hearts of many. Also, there’s no hot, tasty, spicy wine. Which brings us to the Glühwein.
Glühwein (hot, mulled wine) is as simple of a drink as it sounds, but much like the Old Fashioned, the Margarita or the Daiquiri there are many takes on this classic punch-style imbibement. The basic idea is that you simmer some wine, add a bunch of good spices to it, a sweetener of choice (usually some kind of fruit based syrup) with an option of mit schüss (a shot of hard alcohol, usually rum or amaretto, to order) and that’s basically it.
Of course, what separates the pros from the amateur Glühwein enthusiasts is the production method to scale service up for hundreds and hundreds of visitors. Served from giant containers out of spigots into ornate, market-specific cups, at the Weihnachtsmarkt, the Glühwein flows freely.
There are many varieties:
• Himberren (raspberry,)
• Blaubeeren (blueberry,)
• Schlehebeeren (sloe berries,)
• and even Johannisbeeren (red currant.)
At Weihnachtsmärktes, the experience is the gift
A cup of Glühweinn is best enjoyed whilst still hot, which can inspire quick consumption. At 4 or 5 euros each (with an extra 3 euros if you want to keep the cool cup as a souvenir or gift), it’s easy to consume rather quickly. So, one should exercise a fair amount of caution amidst the libations, especially if hard alcohol has been added. I found that two was the ideal number for me; one immediately upon entry, consumed during an initial perusal of the market’s offerings, and then one under the shelter of one of the many tents.
The palace at Charlottenberg was a bit of an older, less crowded and more brightly lit experience and also a bit of a destination visit. At the hip and happening Kulturbrauerei in Prenzlauer Berg, one had to often squeeze through large throngs of visitors to get in the often very long lines for food and drink.
Charlottenberg is definitely a one stop journey, whereas in Prenzlauer Berg one can visit many nearby restaurants and bars before or after attending the market.
Both Weihnachtsmärkte had great things to buy, but the real gift was to be found in the experience itself. Just being there with loved ones next to a warm fire with flecks of snow falling and soft Christmas carols drifting through the air reminds one of the greatest present one could ever give: the gift of presence.
While retailers bombard us every December with gadgets, devices and material things we probably don’t need, the Weihnachtsmärkte offer an experience that cannot be sold and remind us what’s most important during the holidays: being here.
Here’s a great recipe for Glühwein on the kitchn website.
See more about Christmas markets across Europe in Dispatches’ archives here.
Read more about Chris’s experiences in Berlin here.