Christmas in Vienna: The Magic of the Märkte
Some Three Million People Visit the Christkindlmärkte Each Year, Toasting the Season with a Little Glühwein
The Christmas season is upon us and the flair on the streets is undeniable. By the end of October, early stocks of chocolate Santa’s had begun to remind us of the upcoming celebration. But later in November the variety of decorations explodes, as lights are hung across streets, draped along sidewalks, on lampposts and in shop windows.
Everywhere Christmas branches out into little details, like "barista" bears at Starbucks dressed in Santa and elf costumes, and mannequins in sporting goods stores draped as enthusiastic angels. Aside from cookies at the Konditorei and carols on the radio, the absolute Christmas spirit can be found at the legendary Christkindl Markets.
Vienna has many wonderful markets to sample, continuing a tradition of some seven centuries. The Duke Albrecht I was the first to grant sanction the then called "December Markets" in 1298. As it is still customary today, clothing, dishes, candles and toys were being sold in little stalls. Pastries and hot beverages were also served like the hot chocolate and the mulled wine (Glühwein) so popular today. One of the principle markets has always been Am Hof, off Bognergasse, and only much more recently, since 1975, at today’s prime location in front of the Rathaus.
Although most of the practices of a traditional Christkindlmarkt are still present today some things such as the number of markets have changed. Due to the enormous popularity Viennese Christkindlmärkte, many visitors come to Vienna during Advent to catch some of this unique flair. Today the markets attract some three million people each year, of which 500.000 are international visitors.
All the variety allows visitors to be choosy.
Perhaps the most traditional is the Altwiener Christkindlmarkt on the Freyung which has the strongest flavor of the traditions of the Austrian countryside.
Here wooden cabin shops sell a particularly fine selection of breads, cheeses and cured meats, old-style handmade ornaments of embroidered cloth, ribbon and gold braid, chocolates, cider and wines from Burgenland and the Wachau, decorative painted signs and woven baskets, and moveable wooden toys. One can also find some of the finest traditionally handmade wooden crèches as well as exquisite Christmas decorations made of straw. A raised performance space at one end stages a daily program of events, folk concerts and mummers plays, carolers and a brass choir.
For children, the University Campus Im Alten AKH has a Christmas Village market set up along the curving walks of the quadrangle, with a full-sized stable sheltering a real lamb and donkey to feed and pet, as well as rides in a pony cart pulled by a matched pair.
The Rathaus market is offering a variety of activities like pony rides and a little locomotive for touring the grounds, while the parents enjoy a quiet cup of mulled wine.
Daycare is provided inside of the Rathaus with handicraft workshops so the little ones can make something to surprise mom or dad.
For the romantic side of Christmas you might try the market at Schloss Schönbrunn. In the majestic location in front of Empress Sissi’s summer palace, the market is known for the stalls selling handmade hats and wooden Christmas ornaments. In addition to the Village Market Im Alten AKH, Viennese students have declared the market Am Spittelberg in the 7th District their favorite. This intimate setting covering a network of cobbled streets off Neustiftgasse is full of Dickensian charm, with costumed jugglers, carol singers and troubadours, local crafts and a wide variety of food stalls.
Walking along the main street is a difficult task. You have to balance on the narrow strip of pavement between the walls of Baroque houses and the little wooden booths placed on the other side of the sidewalk. A difficult task, as people stop frequently and gather around the stand to take a closer look at the handcrafted jewelry and clothes.
Free of kitsch, the Christmas decorations here are usually natural and hand made, pottery, incense, candles, hats and knitted scarves as well as fresh baked goods sold by the people who made them. Whoever needs to step out of the crowd, simply retreats into one of the five side streets.
There the market continues, booths are set up next to various small restaurants and Gasthäuser that open their doors to the crowd for a change from the cold outside. One is seesawing rather than walking along cobblestone streets. High heels definitely ruled out.
Beyond all that, though, the greatest gift of the markets is the social one, the chance to gather in good company and share the pleasures of the season. Here people meet with friends or even sometimes make new ones – something not so common in Vienna – while they cuddle around a few cups of punch by stall after stall of shimmering, soul warming Christmas magic.