Break out the glühwein!
The best German Christmas markets are easy to spot: hectic, open-air festivals in charming downtowns, where vendors sell everything from food to wares. Known as Christkindlmarkts (Christ child markets) or Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas, or Holy Night, markets), Germany's holiday markets have been recorded as early as 1310, in Munich. (Only Vienna's "December market" is slightly older, dating from 1294.) Most Christmas markets open the Friday before Advent and run through December 24, Christmas Eve, which is typically the most family-oriented day of the season in German homes (think: tree-trimming and gift-giving). A handful of markets stay open until the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.
Christmas markets are great places to discover provincial traditions. In Nuremberg, a local girl (who must meet strict height and age requirements, and who must not be afraid of heights) plays the "Christkind," or Christ child. This angelic figure symbolically opens the market to the public every year. Each market also offers its own custom glühwein mug, which is a cross between an extra-decorative coffee cup and a subdued stein. Pay a little extra, and you get to keep your Christmas mug, making future refills of Glühwein (a mulled wine) cheaper and ensuring you'll go home with a seasonal souvenir. Glühwein is prepared with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, citrus, sugar, and sometimes a shot or two or more of rum or schnapps. Pair it with gebrannte mandeln (toasted candied almonds) or lebkuchen, a kind of gingerbread cookie. The zwetschgenmännle—figures made of prunes—are a little too precious to dismantle for a snack.
Ready for all the glühwein and lebkuchen you can consume? Here's where to go in Germany to experience these Christmastime treats.