Since moving with her German husband to a town south of Frankfurt, the Australian writer has revelled in the magic of Weihnachtsmärkte.
In the tiny wine-town of Deidesheim, cold air stings our faces as Christmas revellers wend down cramped medieval laneways.
Ruddy cheeked, hatted children with pom poms wagging off either side of their beanies dart between log chalets heaving with goodies and wares. The smell of wood smoke mingles with roasting chestnuts and cinnamon.
These are unmistakable geocaching clues for hunters of the ultimate European Christmas experience – a German market, or Weihnachtsmarkt.
A welcome escape from the cold and dark winter: The vibrant, glowing Christmas market in Dresden. 
Only one thing is missing: Foreign tourists. And it’s not just due to the pandemic still affecting travel – they simply don’t know about this magical place.
Nestled in the wooded Pfalz region an hour’s drive (115 kilometres) south of Frankfurt, Deidesheim is home to generations of vintners. But the tiny town of 3700 residents in the Rhineland-Palatinate region is blissfully (for those of us who live here) unknown on the tourist trail.
Throughout the year, it’s mainly visited by cyclists and day trippers riding the Weinstrasse – a 70km route studded with small vineyards. And by well-heeled Frankfurters heading for some destination dining at the upmarket Deidesheimer Hof.
The writer’s loves the small but cosy Christmas market in her hometown of Deidesheim, Germany. 
As for us, my German husband and I moved here in 2019 to spend some time with his family.
After three years, I can report that it’s during Christmas that this pocket-sized village literally sparkles, delivering what larger markets cannot: The romance of being among a cosy community, tasting local terroir in the form of the home-brewed Spätburgunder glühwein; browsing artisanal wares by goldsmiths and glass-blowers.
If luxury is authenticity, this immersion is five stars.
I’m a confirmed Christmas market fanatic, but the story-book festive atmosphere of Deidesheim is merely the surface appeal.
It’s the village’s past: The sense of place and history that I feel most keenly when pausing to really look at the old houses. Or listening to the chefs barking at each other in the guttural Pfälzisch dialect as they cook spitting meat on schwenkers – forged iron grills swinging over flames. There’s a sense of these scenes unfolding since medieval times.
Wooden Christmas ornaments for sale at the Dresden striezelmarkt. Alamy
Felix Braun, an academic whose family has had a hobby vineyard in the area for almost 100 years, recalls how he’d go over to his grandfather’s house on weekends as a boy.
“The highight of winter was when he’d take me to the Christmas markets. He taught me to carve wood in his workshop, and we’d always look at the carvings in the market.
“When I take my own children nowadays, it reminds me of him; while other markets have become so commercial, this one still feels real, that’s the charm.”
Christmas decorations and cuddly bears adorn the Christmas market area in Strasbourg, France. Alamy
Dr Dirk Spennemann, associate professor in cultural heritage management at Australia’s Charles Sturt University and a Christmas market connoisseur, explains the strong link to the German psyche. “Culturally, the Christmas markets have long provided a welcome escape from the cold, wintry run-up to Christmas,” he says.
“It’s the perfect place to socialise and spend a great evening; Christmas markets also trigger childhood memories of tradition, elevating the significance beyond just a place to purchase ornaments and gifts.”
Besides, initially, there were no ornaments, only the trading of goods and food at the wintermärktes found in the Middle Ages across the German-speaking swathes of Europe – such as Vienna’s Dezembermarkt, dating to around 1296.
There is only a vague indication of when Christmas items entered the fray, with Dresden’s strietzelmarkt making the strongest claim to be the ‘first’ Christmas market to specifically sell gifts – on Christmas Eve, 1434, a couple of centuries after the city had established itself.
Dresdener Christstollen for sale: A traditional German Christmas loaf comprising dried fruit, spices and marzipan, coated with powdered sugar. Alamy
Given the markets have been around for more than seven centuries or so, it’s inevitable many have been politicised over the decades, not to mention monetised. The Nazis stuffed Advent calendars with propaganda, and the atheist German Democratic Republic made market wood carvers rename their angels as jahresendflügelfigur (winged year-end figurines).
Faux Bavarian market chalets have sprouted from the United States to India, spruiking electronic Santas and the like. In the United Kingdom, the number of Christmas markets tripled from about 30 in 2007 to over 100 in 2017.
But there’s nothing like the original Weihnachtsmarkt scene: At least that’s what Germans say.
My husband’s favourite markets are in his own hometown of Höhr-Grenzhausen, two hours away; Dr Spennemann enjoys the ‘least touristy’ markets, such as Mainz and Würzburg. He also rates Frankfurt and Dresden for larger markets.
The traditional Montreux Noël market in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. 
Deidesheim has my heart. But just to be controversial, I’m going to say my all-time favourite Christmas market isn’t actually German but French.
The Strasbourg Marché de Noël is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe (dating from 1570), and it’s saturated with charm. Within a snowball’s toss of the German border, France and Germany have long grappled to control Strasbourg. Who could blame them, especially in December, when swathes of fairy lights and snowflakes further enhance this most coquettish of French cities.
On a recent visit, standing among the multitude of markets and stalls, our little family of four paused for warm pain d’épice (ginger bread). Lodged between French carollers wearing Santa hats and nuns selling hand-sewn figurines, our snacking quartet must have looked a little like a hungry nativity scene.
Chris Fundell, head of marketing for Avalon Waterways, champions Strasbourg’s markets as a favourite, while countering that “all the markets have their special charm and one-of-a kind atmosphere”. Like many river cruise operators, Avalon offers a seven-day ‘Christmas on the Danube’ trip designed to showcase the pearls of festive Central Europe, including visits to markets in Vienna, Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg.
The Christmas market in Salzburg, Austria, elevation 424 metres. A white Christmas is only guaranteed at altitudes above 1850m.  
At Viking, the eight-day ‘Christmas on the Rhine’ from Basel to Amsterdam includes markets in Cologne and Vienna. Uniworld’s 11-day ‘Enchanting Christmas & New Year’s Cruise’ itinerary explores markets across Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia with Christmas Eve in Passau. The rivership rings in the New Year in Budapest.
Whether explored by waterways or on land, Christmas markets are just one element of a trip to Europe in December. Especially if you’re heading to Switzerland to atmospheric Einsiedeln during their 10-day Christmas market, or to Montreux Noël market with its zip-line flying Santa sleigh.
After enjoying the sights, you’re ideally situated near the Alps for the real bucket-list experience – a white Christmas. Preferably enjoyed on skis.
The majority of Europe is snow-less at Christmas, so combining a chocolate box Alpine town and guaranteed skiing is not a given.
Val-d’Isère in France is an ideal destination if you want snow with your Christmas celebrations. Val d’Isère Tourisme
“In European ski areas, the original towns are often on valley floors,” explains Sarah Plaskitt, owner of Scout, which specialises in boutique skiing holidays. The purpose-built ski towns (especially in France) are therefore located higher up on the mountain plateaus, where the snow falls early. Given many of these resorts went up in the 1970s, it’s unfortunately not always where the historic buildings are.
A few well-chosen spots offer the jackpot: A charming traditional town at high elevation. Just aim for above 1850 metres when travelling in December, and you should be right.
In France, Val-d’Isère is the place to plant poles (stay at the 2551m Le Refuge de Solaise, France’s oldest cable car station, now a sophisticated hotel) or schuss over to the village of Courchevel 1850.
In Austria, dreamy Zell am See is a mere twirl from the Innsbruck Christmas markets. A few hours’ drive away, you’ll reach the rarefied orbit of discrete Lech and Oberlech. Head straight for the exquisite hospitality of the five-star Relais and Châteaux Gasthof Post, where the Jordanian and Dutch royals stay.
Zermatt in the Swiss Alps has stunning views of the snow-covered Matterhorn. 
In Switzerland, the traditional Walser village of Mürren –perched mid-mountain (accessible by cable car, James Bond-style) – is spectacularly situated.
Adventures at Zermatt in Switzerland are also seared into our family’s collective Christmas memory. The car-free town offers endless views of the brooding Matterhorn, leaning like a crooked witch’s hat. On these slopes, you can ride traditional wooden sleds with curly runners. Say “Zermatt”, and I also picture glasses of glühwein, thick pine tree forest, and skaters circling on the resort’s rink.
This year, our Christmas family spirit is fast approaching fever pitch. We’re heading far north soon – for a holiday to Northern Lapland in Finland to witness the Northern Lights from a glass-roofed igloo.
Heading north to meet Santa at Finland’s Rovaniemi is a popular pastime. Touted as the official ‘home of Santa’, package-deal flights land from the United Kingdom land on a near hourly basis at this time of year.
But no, my family is off to the Northern Lights Village in Saariselkä, the Deidesheim of Finland (minus the vineyards) – meaning it is often overlooked, except by those in the know. It’s 250km north of the Arctic Circle, but within a 30-minute drive of Ivalo international airport.
Sledding is a popular winter past-time during the five hours of daylight in northern Finland. 
We’re booked in to snowshoe to Santa in his log cabin deep in a forest, and we’ll also help feed 850 reindeer. That might sound like something young migrant workers do for visa extensions, but in fact, it’s a highly rated Finnish tourism activity.
I can already hear the squeak of snowshoes on snow. And taste the local cloudberry liqueur.
Name | Mostly referred to as Weihnachtsmarkt in German, Christmas markets can also be called adventsmarkt, Christkindlmarkt, Nikolausmarkt, striezelmarkt and krippenmarkt.
Duration | The four-week Advent season leading to Christmas denotes the opening of the markets. Some open mid-November; there are an estimated 3000 markets across Germany, including 60 in Berlin.
Try | Regional market specialities. In Dresden, go for the bread-like cake Christstollen; in Cologne’s: Weihnachtsmarkt am Kölner Dom, nibble spekulatius (spiced) biscuits. Bavaria’s ancient Augsburg Christkindlesmarkt has lebkuchen gingerbread, and Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt is home to zwetschgenmännle (figures made from decorated dried plums). Deidesheim’s signature fare is bratwurst from field-fattened pigs.
Visit a Swiss Christmas market for the apfelchucheli alone – thick slices of apple dipped in batter and deep-fried, topped with warm vanilla custard.
December 6 | The date when St Nikolaus (or Samichlaus in Switzerland) visits and children leave out shoes to be filled with small gifts. In some European countries, this day rivals Christmas (usually celebrated on Christmas Eve) for sheer celebration.
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