Christmas Culture

Whether for a social drink or last minute shopping, the Christkindlmärkte have been fulfilling the needs of the Viennese since the 1600s

News | Gretchen Gatzke | December 2010 / January 2011

November. A grey, wet and depressing month in most places. Nothing happens in November, just people walking briskly, bundled up in down jackets and scarves that wrap practically around their entire head. Wind blowing, light, stinging drizzle and, to make it even worse, ominous clouds that seem permanently draped over every rooftop.

But we’re not in most places. We’re in Vienna. November here is not a month where people sit and wait for the holidays to begin. The celebrating has already begun.

The weeks leading up to Christmas bring with them glowing candles, chandelier lights and silk ribbons. They also bring Christmas markets. Gingerbread, Glühwein, Punsch...

But the exact date that these markets began is unknown. Since the 1600s, and up until 1761, stands were set up mostly on the Graben, but also around the city’s many churches. Midnight mass left churchgoers in need of refreshments – and awaiting them when they emerged were these stands, selling gingerbread, sweets and mulled wine. In addition, apples, nuts and small figurines for the children were displayed – items of temptation.

The churches decided they didn’t like this placement. There were too many games and "worldly amusements" for them to allow, so they forbade these holiday markets…but not for long. People had grown used to these vendors, and expected – demanded – them to be there. An uprising of the people forced the church to accept them once more.

These markets, though, were not always called "Christkindlmärkte" like they are today. This name was first documented in 1827. Before, they were called Krippenmärkte, or "nativity markets." At this time, the Krippe was the central object during Christmas celebrations, as compared with the Christmas tree today. On the Graben, they were deemed "Thomasmärkte," alluding to Saint Thomas Aquinas, considered by some to be the Catholic Church’s greatest theologian and philosopher.

Friederike Kammer-Hirsch, a tour guide for the City of Vienna, shells out facts like these to tourists everyday…busloads of them. "One hundred buses are allowed every weekend," she said. "And they all come specifically to see the Christmas markets."

These markets, she said, played different roles everywhere. In mountainous areas, for example, places that are difficult to get to, especially in the winter, markets were essential as venues to sell crafts and pastries. They were, in some cases, the only way these locals could provide for themselves.

"I once met a woman," Kammer-Hirsch recalled, "who still had a Thomasmarkt in her childhood hometown." They’re still, almost 200 years later, serving a purpose in small villages, selling hats, scarves and gloves…wintertime essentials.

But today these markets also play a different role in Viennese culture. They used to last only the four weeks leading up to Christmas, but because of their success they’ve started to begin earlier and earlier every year. Their importance relates more to holiday shopping sprees and social get-togethers than to the celebration of the nativity scene.

As Krammer-Hirsch said, the Viennese like the pleasant sides of life. These markets provide the occasion to meet friends, eat typical Viennese dishes and find small gifts for family and friends in the last minutes before Christmas.

Christkindlmärkte enchant young and old alike, bringing a sparkle into the eyes of children and a healthy pink glow to their cheeks, whisked away into a world of cinnamon treats, toys and temptations. They bring out the festive side of Vienna, an air of expectant anticipation…year in, year out, just as they have done for the past 400 years.

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