Transformation of a City

Vienna’s Christmas Markets attract millions each year

On The Town | Sarah Fallon | December 2008 / January 2009

Browsing for candy at the Rathaus (Photo: Sarah Fallon)

Suddenly it’s December: We emerge from the U-Bahn into the crisp night air, under a sky heavy with the promise of snow. Above the Graben, glimmering chandeliers dangle from the darkness, its vast space ablaze with light like an open-air ballroom. Left, along the Kohlmarkt, the pace quickens at the confectionary Demel, as pastel treats call alluringly through the window glass. On through the Hofburg passage, footsteps echo against stones of the arcade, past the blanketed horses who stand clomping and snorting, leaving a cloud of hot breath frozen in the air. Across Heldenplatz and through the Burgtor Gate...

And we’re there:  It’s the grand dame of Austria, the Empress Maria Theresia, seated above strings of golden bulbs adorning wooden huts. Though one of the newer Christmas markets in Vienna, the Maria Theresian Platz Christkindlmarkt retains a special, timeless charm. Sandwiched between ornate buildings of the Empire -- the twin museums of the History of Art and Natural Science – the market plays host to a pleasing bustle of activity at the feet of these majestic landmarks. Clustered figures swaddled in thick coats congregate by the wooden huts, warming their hands on a hot mug of Punsch, drawn to the Christmas lights like moths to a flame. Drifting along the promenade, shoppers trawl for trinkets, far from the commercial drone of the shopping mall and high street.

Walking through any of cities numerous Christkindl markets, the season fizzles and buzzes with Vienna’s centuries’ old celebrations. First appearing as the ‘December Markets’ in 1296, they were established by a sanction from Duke Albrecht I, son of the first Habsburg King Rudolf. By the 17th century, the huts on the Graben and in front of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral sold baked goods, gingerbread and confections until the ‘twelfth’ Night.

Today, some three million people visit the Vienna Christmas markets. Undoubted the most popular is the city’s Christkindlmarkt at Rathausplatz, with alleys of trees hung with glowing lanterns bordening the wide square. With the gothic Rathaus rising proudly behind, visitors meander between wooden cabins chocked full of decorations, woolens and gifts in purple, red, and green. Glinting in the reflection of candles sold next door, frogs and sphinx-like baubles dance amongst the more traditional globes. A hollow musical nonsense floats from tiny hands playing with wooden instruments. Old and young pass by, munching on knotted pretzels or roasted chestnuts nestled in crisp paper cones. Weary visitors and fidgeting children snake through the Rathaus park aboard the miniature Christkindlexpress, chugging past every decorated tree on the ten minute tour.

This Christmas market offers an assortment of diversions for younger visitors. In front of the life size crib, a smiling, white robed Christkind appears every evening to read festive stories to wide-eyed children. Walk up the cold stone stairs inside City Hall, and the sweet scent of baking seeps from the Christmas Workshop. Inside, children in white aprons and caps thread, sew or bake; their finished products met with exclamations by parents giddy from a break at the Punsch stand.

A few stops from the Rathausplatz on the 43 Tram in a cozy courtyard of the University campus, is the "Weihnachtsdorf im Alten AKH" (Christmas Village in the Old General Hospital). Along pathways lined with fir trees, visitors crunch across a carpet of chestnut shells towards brightly lit stalls. Here the offerings have a distinctly global edge: handcrafted pottery and carved wooden sculptures sit next to jewelry made from recycled computers parts, cables and keyboards. Children jousting with red toffee apples run towards the shrieking blur of a merry go round, stopping to grab at colorful dream catchers fluttering in the wind. At Emrik’s stand, the Punsch is laced with mango, rose essence or coconut, complete with a bit of oral history and a few nibbles of Indian sweets and curry. Children cling excitedly onto the manes of ponies as they ride through the scene with Santa, where a portion of the €2 fee is donated to the charity "Vision for Africa".

Evoking scenes of Christmases past, the much loved Weihnachtsmarkt am "Spittelberg" is tucked into narrow cobbled lanes of Vienna’s 7th district, overlooked by art galleries and restaurants. Visitors jostle between cabins set up personally by each stallholder, which maintains the artisan focus of this market. At Cara Musa’s stall, mirrors are held up, as custom-made bags are hooked onto the arms of prospective owners. Further along, wisps of potent incense curl around visitors thumbing through intricately woven linen cloths. An elderly couple, arm in arm, stoop to inspect a wooden hut laden with crib figurines actually produced in Bethlehem. In Schrankgasse (Cupboard Lane), children clutching tufts of wobbling candy-floss point intently at the costumed "Punsch" and "Judy" or "Santa," whose appearance injects some festive jollity into each Wednesday and Sunday respectively.

Peppered around the MuseumsQuartier are signposts imprinted with a Yeti.  The Abominable Snowman, points towards a kaleidoscopic light projection created by Fritz Fitzke and Lichttapete; dramatically framed by the angular buildings of the art complex’s central courtyard. Chosen this year by organizers as the symbol for winter, the Yeti features in all attractions of "Winter in the Museumsquartier."  As bright colors flow endlessly across the quadrangle, beats of Hip Hop, Funk, Reggae and Disco DJ sets intersperse with the shuffle and clink of curling games at the Ice Stock Rink. Excited chatter from crowds in chic winter-wear leaks through the stacked bricks of the Ice Palace, where the Punsch flows long into the night. For this Christmas market, with its modern edge has the longest opening hours of all, which is perfect for those eager to prolong the magical Christmas atmosphere of Vienna.

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