Christmas markets can be traced to medieval Germany where bakers made novelty gingerbread items and merchants sold ornaments to take home for the Christmas tree.
The tradition spread, the concept of the Christmas tree gaining ground in Britain when Queen Victoria's German consort, Prince Alfred, put one up at Windsor Castle. Numerous traditions influence today's Christmas markets.
Here are some of the best, and the most unusual.
London holds a German-style Christmas market in Hyde Park, where small wooden chalets are set up around the bandstand on Serpentine Road. Gifts and seasonal foods are for sale, including gingerbread, German mulled wine and bratwurst sausages.In Bath, a Christmas market is held in the area between Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths that have long made this city a major drawcard. To celebrate Bath's best-known citizen, the Jane Austen Centre holds a Jane Austen Regency Christmas exhibition to illustrate how the Austens and their friends decorated their houses and celebrated the festive season.
·visitlondon.com and visitbath.co.uk.
Rome's Piazza Navona is home to an annual Christmas market that goes through to Epiphany (January 6) and commemorates the presentation of Jesus to the Three Wise Men.
Not surprisingly, nativity figures and mangers are prominent among the goods for sale. So is the rock candy resembling charcoal that's associated with La Befana, a witch-like woman carrying a bag of gifts on a broomstick. According to legend, La Befana regretted not joining the wise men on their journey to find the baby Jesus.In popular folklore, she comes down the chimney of Italian households and fills the shoes and stockings of good children with gifts. She also leaves a lump of candy charcoal because no child is good all of the time.
There are many different stories about how Rovaniemi came to be the official hometown of Santa. One version centres on how a popular Finnish radio presenter managed to convince thousands of children that Santa lived on a remote ear-shaped mountain called Korvatunturi.
The Ear Mountain allowed Santa to hear all the children's Christmas wishes. But its remote location made it difficult to visit, so Santa decided to have a second home and a postal address at Rovaniemi, in the Arctic Circle. Santa's Post Office opened in the 1970s and, with his helpers, he now works there every day.There is an official Christmas season but he just keeps getting busier and now Rovaniemi's Christmas markets continue all through the year.
Finns are great traditionalists and, by temperament, rather modest. So when it comes to decorations, it is only the advances in modern technology have altered the Christmas lights on Helsinki's main shopping street, Aleksanterinkatu.
For Finns, Christmas is also about paying respects to deceased family members, so the city's churches and cemeteries are illuminated by candlelight. More than 160 vendors offer candles, cards, knitted goods and handicrafts at the Christmas market at the Old Student House. ·visithelsinki.fi.
Dublin Docklands is an area undergoing exciting changes that are extending the city centre downriver. George's Dock is the site of Christmas markets that draw their inspiration from old German traditions.On sale are Christmas decorations, wooden toys, seasonal food, mulled wine and German sausage, plus stocking fillers such as leather goods, glassware, crafted jewellery and art. There are carol singers, storytellers, live bands and fairground attractions, in particular the restored Galloping Horses carousel.
Budapest, one of the first Eastern Bloc cities to embrace glasnost, is hosting its 13th Christmas Fair in Vorosmarty Square. There is a Christmas tree and a crib and, for the first time, visitors will see the Flame of Peace, brought by scouts from the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.On sale are handmade gifts by folk artists in the Hungarian peasant tradition - wooden toys, wrought-iron goods, candles, folk-weave products, baskets and bags, and felt and leather goods. Bands play and food stands offer traditional Hungarian dishes such as scones topped with crunchy bacon and fresh vegetables, pork fried on charcoal, stuffed cabbage rolls, fish soup, fried carp, goose liver, bread pudding with honey and poppy seeds and mulled wine.
Paris in the festive season is stunning and one of the most interesting places for shopping is the artisans' Christmas Market and Santa's Village in the Place Saint-Sulpice in the Latin Quarter. Almost all the French Christmas markets have their origins in Northern Alsace, a region that once belonged to Germany.Not surprisingly, the most famous French Christmas market is held in that region's capital, Strasbourg.
The White Christmas Market held in Copenhagen's historic Tivoli Gardens has been a popular event since 1994. Little stalls sell sweets and gifts against a backdrop of twinkling Christmas lights that garland the iconic amusement rides and lovely old buildings dotted around the gardens.Tivoli's lake is transformed into an ice-skating rink and dozens of mechanical pixies inhabit the slopes of small snow-topped hills. This year Tivoli is introducing a Russian theme with a 2000sqm Russian city, complete with St Basil's Cathedral and its 21m tower as well as Russian beetroot soup (borscht) and Danish flodeboller (marshmallows).
Vienna is magical at Christmas time. Pine branches decorate shopfronts and markets pop up all over town. The biggest is held in front of Vienna City Hall, where trees are illuminated and stalls sell gifts, gingerbread hearts and berry punch.
Handmade decorations and mangers are among the items sold in front of Schonbrunn Palace, a former Hapsburg residence. There is a Christmas village at Belvedere Palace and the Altwiener Christkindlmarkt is located against the backdrop of various palaces in the Freyung district of the Old Town.The goods on offer cover everything from hand- decorated Christmas tree candles to traditional basket ware.
Lubeck's Christmas fair precinct was first mentioned in 1648 and about 400 merchants still offer their wares there. The biggest market is to be found in the pedestrian area around the Town Hall and on the Market Square.A craftsmen's Christmas fair takes place in the long dormitory hall of the Hospital of the Holy Ghost, which was built as a refuge for the poor and infirm by wealthy merchants in the 1280s.
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