When I was about sixteen years old, I got the opportunity to visit Germany. On that trip, I found myself in Saxony, in a small former mining town called Schneeberg. As a teenager who’d never been out of the country before, Schneeberg struck me as something straight out of a fairy tale. I remember walking cobblestone streets, ducking inside the beautiful Gothic St. Wolfsgangkirche and the elaborate and gorgeous neo-Gothic Town Hall. We were able to roam that town for the better part of a day, and the most magical part for me was wandering into the year-round Christmas shops, where elaborate wooden toys and ornaments filled every nook and cranny. The town itself had already seemed like a Christmas village come to life, but in the midst of the smells of baked goods, looking at all the beautiful wood and glasswork ornaments, Christmas and Germany became inextricably linked for me.
It wasn’t long after this trip that I discovered a piece of that fairy tale existed right here in Chicago at Christmastime, at a place called Christkindlmarket. There, butted up against the familiar trappings of a city I knew and loved, were sights, smells and tastes of that small town in Germany that had seemed so surreal. Strolling around, I could envision myself back in Schneeberg, eating a Thuringen sausage or a warm, delicious pretzel, oohing and ahhing at beautiful woodwork and blown glass ornaments, and watching a zoo’s worth of carefully constructed wooden animals collapsing over and over at the push of a wooden button on their base. As I got older, I’d come to love the enchanting, warming taste of spiced glühwein, slowly warming me from within while it melted away any holiday stress I’d been carrying on arrival. Christkindlmarket (Not Chris Kringle Market or Christkindermarket, mind you) has now become one of my favorite ways to get in the Christmas Spirit in Chicago, and recapture some of that childhood wonder I felt overseas for the first time.
Christkindlmarket represents German tradition that dates all the way back to the 16th Century, with the original Christkindlmarket in Nuremberg, Germany, though its first appearance in Chicago was in 1995. Originally, the market was instituted here in Chicago to encourage trade between Germany and the US. The market, in Germany and here in Chicago, celebrates the arrival of the Christkind, which, as tradition holds, is a sort of celestial being or grand angel who delivers gifts to children (instead of Santa Claus) on December 24th. Markets in Germany will typically select a Christkind, who will then open the market with a recited prologue and welcome the market’s visitors. Though occasionally, visitors would be treated to a vision of this storied visitor when the Nuremberg Christkind would travel in for opening week, it took until 2013 for Chicago to begin selecting its own Christkind this year, who appears in all their golden splendor to speak the same words, in the original German, and kick off the year’s festivities.
If Chicago’s market was designed to entice more trade with Germany, it most certainly seems to continue to be a success. Every inch of Christkindlmarket overflows with goodies, from leberkase and potato pancakes for those looking to sample authentic German food, to all manner of sweets and beautiful decorations for the holiday. While the majority of the market’s booths remain populated by imported goods from all over Germany, it’s not without its diversity. There are always baubles, textiles and treats from other countries, too, and even some space for local Chicago vendors to sell their wares. And it seems there’s also always lines to get into the sweets section, or roam the aisles of beautiful hand blown ornaments that take the shape of everything from baked goods and animals to cityscapes near and far.
To my mind, nothing so perfectly replicates the true spirit of that small town in Germany and the sense of wonder it gave me as Christkindlmarket, and at the same time, is so linked to Christmastime in Chicago. Maybe it’s the way that everything seems tinged with the warmth of the glühwein under the glow of the lights. Maybe it’s in the unfamiliar being tucked in the heart of places that are so familiar, and so businesslike most of the year. Whatever it is, if you’ve not yet taken the journey and secured yourself this year’s heart shaped mug, consider doing so before the market closes up on December 24th, and get a taste of Old World Christmas right on your doorstep.
For more information about Christkindlmarket, including information on its more recent suburban and Wrigleyville locations, click here.