The Upper Rhine Valley not only claims the first written references to the sale and lighting of Christmas trees, but also has a Christmas market history dating back hundreds of years. Held during Advent, the four weeks prior to Christmas, these seasonal street markets brighten the darkest days of the year. They’re the place to make merry, shop with friends, and share the holiday magic over steaming mugs of mulled wine.
Each market comprises dozens of vendors housed in wooden stalls trimmed with lights and garland and grouped along cobblestoned streets or clustered in village squares. Unlike shopping malls, with their blaring pseudo-carol Muzak tracks, Christmas markets are outdoors, and the usual background music blends squeals from children riding a carousel, live singers, and bleats from sheep in a living nativity scene. In many ways, they’re similar to farmers markets, but the available products include not only local cheeses and charcuterie, but also handcrafted wooden toys, turned bowls, blown glass, nutcrackers, ornaments, even hats and scarves.
Like any good holiday gathering, food and drink are the heart of every market. The aromas of onions and sausages sizzling in an open pan and wine simmering with anise, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon perfume the air. Vendors offer tastes of cheeses, meats, foie gras, potted duck, and smoked fish, and sell hot soups and stews and local dishes.
But if food is the heart, than sweets are the honey that binds the market together. Traditional breads and cookies, rooted in centuries-old recipes passed down through the generations, vary by town and country. The one universal is manala, a spiced brioche shaped like a little man given to children on Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas. Other temptations include: Alsatian bredele, the collective term for more than a dozen varieties of traditional Christmas spiced cookies; Christollen, an iced Christmas brioche made with candied fruits and cinnamon; berawecka, bread made with dried fruits marinated in kirsch; and leckerli, a hard, sugar-glazed biscuit made from honey, nuts, candied fruit, and kirsch, created in Basel in the 15th century.
With a train pass, it's easy to hopscotch the markets in Baden-Baden and Freiburg, Germany; Strasbourg, Obernai, and Colmar, France; and Basel, Switzerland, nibbling and sipping the delicacies offered at each, while simultaneously browsing, buying, and savoring the season. Add a sprinkle of snow, and the Upper Rhine Valley not only shines, it sparkles.