Of Christmas Markets and ‘Silent Night’

If you love Christmas, consider visiting Germany and Austria for authentic celebrations of this joyous time of year.

If you love Christmas, consider visiting Germany and Austria for authentic celebrations of this joyous time of year.

Age-old rituals abound in religious settings, and great old-fashioned fun resonates in more than 300 outdoor markets, from late November until Christmas Eve.

These Christkindl Markts (Christ Child Markets) range from sprawling celebrations in Nuremberg, Munich and Vienna to smaller but charming affairs in Bamberg, Passau and Salzburg, among others.

All offer glorious Christmas entertainment, visual and gastronomic treats and beautifully articulated local crafts, steeped in Advent’s ancient anticipation of Christ’s birth.

Almost overnight, virtual villages of three-sided wooden stalls appear in central squares in both countries.

In most places, the newly installed village springs to life each day around 10am and closes at 9pm, but it is most crowded from dusk onward, when lights illuminate the magical scene, and bells peal, carousels spin, glockenspiels whirl and oompah-pah bands and musical events feature rousing programs. Among the entertainment, jesters jest, jousters joust, St. Nicholas appears, and golden angels sing from lofty ramparts.

As the frosty air brims with music, it is also filled with tempting scents of homemade holiday fare.

The Nuremberg Market is Germany’s largest, with more than 150 stalls. Dating from 1697, it presides over the vast Hauptmarkt Square, at the base of the 14th-century Church of Our Lady. Here, visitors are tempted by typical offerings, such as intricately fashioned handmade toys and gifts, as well as glass, straw and wooden ornaments, nutcrackers, candles and more.

One of the market’s unique specialties is Zwetschgenmannchen, little “prune people,” made of nuts, raisins, figs and plums, dressed in colorful outfits, which are used as edible Christmas decorations. After a candlelight Mass in the Church of Our Lady, climb the stairs for expansive outdoor views of the magical scene.

Germany’s oldest market in Munich dates back more than 600 years and is held in the Marienplatz in front of the town hall. On a quest for a Christmas crèche? This is the place to find some of the most beautiful in the country. The designs of these crèches are firmly rooted in the tradition of old Bavarian folk art, and they range in size from miniature sets to elaborate life-size displays that include a thatched-roof manger, Holy Family, angels and Magi, as well as farm animals and shepherds.

Festivities rev up around 5pm, when the sweet sounds of music waft down from the balcony of the town hall as a different choral or musical group performs holiday songs each day.

Bamberg, one of Germany’s loveliest Old World cities, spared from damage by World War ll bombings, extends across seven hills and is bisected by silvery rivers and canals.

Within its atmosphere of crooked streets and medieval buildings, the skyline is punctuated by church steeples and dominated by the 11th-century Bamberg cathedral. Featuring a traditional market on the central Maxplatz, it also boasts two special craft markets within the old town.

Along its “Route of Nativity Scenes,” set up at 40 sites in museums, public buildings and churches, visitors are privileged to see 400 Christmas cribs depicting various biblical stories around Christ’s birth.

The remarkable selection of displays features elaborately garbed, wooden Baroque figures, as well as those dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. It is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of the season.

Passau unfolds as a panorama of brightly painted houses nestled around 50 churches, at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn Rivers.

The whimsical Italian-Baroque townscape brims with historic buildings, broad squares and romantic promenades. Its skyline is dominated by church towers, especially that of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where the largest cathedral organ in the world draws music lovers to its popular Advent concerts, every Wednesday and Saturday.

From here, it is easy to cross the Austrian border and join in the merriment in Vienna and Salzburg.


Silent Night’s Inspiration

Then give yourself the most glorious Christmas present and head to the tiny village of Oberndorf, about 30 minutes from Salzburg. Here, in 1816, the endearing words of Silent Night were written by the village pastor, Father Josef Mohr, because the bellows of the church organ, which had been devoured by hungry mice, rendered the organ inoperable.

Father Mohr, who didn’t want the parish children to be disappointed on Christmas Eve, wrote the words and accompanied them on his guitar.

The congregation was delighted, and, two years later, Hans Xaver Gruber composed the musical score that is beloved the world over.

Today, the chapel is the destination of millions of pilgrims who come to hear choirs sing the refrain in its original setting. While here, be sure to visit the Gruber-Mohr Memorial, Silent Night Museum and Silent Night Post Office. In addition, many longer, in-depth tours of the area are available.

Back at home, the annual joy of unwrapping hand-painted ornaments, little red wooden sleighs topped with cinnamon-stick logs, life-like crèche figures and very special Rauschgoldenangel (gold-foil angels) will rekindle precious memories of a land where Christmas is celebrated like no other. And, when the lilting verses of Silent Night rise above your own congregation at Christmastime, it will never sound quite the same.

Marion Fox writes from Philadelphia.