A Little Big Christmas

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Nothing puts me in a festive mood more than a Christmas market. And I needed it this year. I don’t know if it’s the unusually warm weather, current events, the profound shift my psyche is going through, or a combination of all three. Until just a couple of days ago, I was a veritable Scrooge.

Over the last eight years, I have visited many Christmas markets. Enough to notice a pattern: the more touristy a city, the less atmospheric the market. My beloved Bratislava remains my favorite. Every market has its unique personality, however.

Warsaw: Tiny wooden huts against a restored backdrop of Hollywood soundstage perfection. Food. Bigos, kielbasa, smalec, poppy seed cake. Huge hunks of bread and cheese. Peasant food. The vicious wind whipped tears from my eyes and then hardened them to ice. It was so cold, even the Poles stayed away. My husband and I shoveled the steaming food into our mouths, forks shaking, and then retreated to a warm pub.

Vienna: The blazing lights gave off a palpable heat. The stream of humans quickly became a torrent from which there was no escape. Somewhere in the middle of the flow, my husband and I slipped into an eddy and emerged at a vendor’s stall. Time enough to grasp a nutcracker, note the Made in China sticker on the foot, and set it back down. We were then sucked back into the current, which had become clogged. A maelstrom of bodies pressed against bodies. Mosh pit merriment. Plump rosy cheeks, blonde curls. Maws stretched wide, releasing cackles of maniacal glee. I had stepped into the Toulouse-Lautrec painting from hell. Finally, we were spewed out. Disoriented, we stumbled toward the metro station. The chemical aftertaste from the artificially-flavored mulled wine lingered for hours.

Budapest: Outstanding shopping. And I loathe shopping. Especially Christmas shopping. Hungarians excel at crafts. An indifferent atmosphere reigned, however. I never felt comfortable enough to linger.

Prague: My husband and I finally got up the nerve to venture down there Thursday afternoon. We had calculated correctly: there was room to breathe. Minimal selfie sticks and Segways. The healthiest asses I’ve ever seen. In the stable/petting zoo, I mean. In any other city, the market itself would have been nothing exceptional, but the backdrop of Prague makes everything a magical experience. This year, the exact time of the official tree lighting ceremony was kept a secret, because of terrorism fears. The Czech people I know have told me that they avoid the main market. More than one has told me that they prefer Bratislava’s market. Yes, little Bratislava. And I have to agree.

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Folkloric groups come down from the mountains to perform. Their feisty enthusiasm makes up for the lack of flashy costumes and choreographic precision. Even when the two little squares are full, it never seems crowded. Even if you know no one, you don’t feel like a stranger. There is space for individual personalities to emerge. The middle-aged couple who drifted from table to table, seeking any alcohol left untouched. Senegalese men peddling their wares. This gentleman and his companions caused quite a commotion when they strolled into the fray one misty Saturday afternoon.

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This market is not one that you visit only once a season. It permeates the routine. You stop by for a quick lunch one day, and then on another day you pick up a strudel for the walk or ride home after shopping.

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Over the four weeks of Advent, you meet up with friends to have a mug or three of medovina – fermented honey wine – or, if you’re brave enough, the wicked turbo punch. Cold fingers around a hot mug. Light-hearted conversation with my Slovak buddies. The twinkling lights blurred into each other. Impressionistic. I learned, the hard way, that drinking more than two mugs of medovina will result in an entire day spent on the couch, cradling the skull and whimpering. And yet, like the locals, the following weekend I went back for more.

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83 thoughts on “A Little Big Christmas

    • Oh, the hats. It was a parade of roadkill attire that day. I hadn’t experienced a Christmas market until I moved to Europe. Now I can’t imagine experiencing the holidays without visiting one.

  1. Another really nice post 🙂 I keep thinking that I would like to make the trip east at some point … and you keep reminding me of some of the things I would like to experience there (Kielbasa, for example – here, we have of course the German version of Polish sausage, Krakauer; and while it is quite tasty, I would someday like to try the Polish version of Polish sausage, in Poland. I’m reminded of the Star Trek movie where they said that Shakespeare hasn’t really been experienced, unless it was in the original Klingon 🙂

    I remember the first Christmas market I went to in Bremen … snow fell, in soft, huge flakes, and I had the strange sensation that if Charles Dickens and Norman Rockwell put their heads together to describe the most wonderful winter scene, it might have looked something like that. From my experience in Germany, the markets in the smaller towns tend to not be as nice in some ways … the vendors who really have something other than fast food and Grog to sell, they like to take their wares to where they think the big money will be, leaving the smaller markets as little more than a ‘munch mile.’ The good news is, the smaller markets are not crowded; and I’m always happy for an excuse to go for a stroll. I can fully relate to your experience of finding the made in China sticker on the nutcracker (again, original Klingon comes to mind). I think there should be a law against selling mass-produced crafts at such markets, it would encourage local artisans to participate at a more prominent level; and the mass-production specialists can always sell on Amazon or something.

    • Thank you. Yes, a lot of small cities have only crappy food stalls and imported gifts. That’s why Bratislava is unique. It’s small, but still authentic. The Budapest market is strictly controlled to be sure that only the best locally-produced crafts are sold. It sets a good example. I’ve heard that the Dresden market is superb, but we didn’t get around to going there this year. Polish kielbasa is the best, though I haven’t eaten any for more than 25 years, since I stopped eating meat. I still remember, though.

  2. i love the christmas markets here in the uk but you have inspired me to want to check out some on mainland europe – well maybe next year

  3. Ah…the Motherland. Thanks for such a delightful tour, Julie. I always thought my grandmother was from Prague. I found a document in the LDS church genealogical files that claims she was born in Bratislava. I was 6 when she died. I didn’t know to clarify with her, and my dad was unsure. The colors, the food, the crafts…all like home to me. ❤️

    • So, was she Czech or Slovak? Was it still Austria-Hungary at that time, or had it become Czechoslovakia? It’s amazing what you can find out thanks to the LDS website. I was able to go pretty far back on my father’s side.

      • Born in 1900 while it was still part of Austria-Hungary. It changed to Czechoslovakia in 1918. She left in 1920. Her immigration documents indicated Czech, but she was active in the Hungarian community here in the U.S. So…???? She spoke 7 languages. I understand why.

  4. Julie dear , your photos are like a story in themselves with alluring atmosphere and those fur hats , lights at night , gorgeous and strange faces , and then your way with words makes me long for the market in Sophia where I purchased an antique accordion I still don’t know how to play but hear the music from those streets anyway ….like I imagine you and your husband strolling and talking ….may your Christmas be filled with joy deer friend ! Love , megxxx

    • That accordion is a real treasure. Sometimes you don’t need to play something to hear its music. I wish you a warm and merry Christmas with your beautiful family, deer Meg. 🎄

  5. How fun to have visited so many markets. I love the photo at night with all the lights. When I was a kid I went with my grandparents to the market in Amsterdam and had so much fun (we didn’t have outdoor markets in the US then – to my recollection anyway). Now they are here and I love them.

  6. Thank you, Julie for your contemporary post. As a German I agree with you: the quality of Xmas-makets loses with the increase of tourism. The more people the less coziness and romantic. But with the mobility of today of course all people want to experience the attractions.
    Have a great Christmas season, Julie.
    Best wishes,
    Ulli

    • I’ve been to one of the markets in Berlin, but it was not impressive. I’d love to see Dresden’s Striezelmarkt. I’ve been told that it’s really beautiful. Maybe next year. I wish you a joyful Christmas and 2016, Ulli. 🎄

      • Hello Julie, have you been at Sony-Center in Berlin? This is a hightech christmasmarket 😉
        Really nice is Dresden, Munic, Cologne, Aachen, Nürnberg …
        But they all are overcrowded. This year in Germany are big discussions if it is to dangerous to visit the markets because of IS. Bad times in a peaceful christmas season.
        Have a nice weekend, Julie.
        Greetings,
        Ulli

          • Yes, you’re right. Hope it will be peaceful until the end. It’s always a pleasure to visit the markets 🙂
            Best wishes, Julie. Have a wonderful Christmas and a happy 2016, too
            Ulli

  7. I’m kind of a novice at Christmas markets; I went to my first one last year in Tallinn. Have you been there? I’d love to know how it compares to the best and worst in your much wider experience. I enjoyed the atmosphere mainly for its cozy look and feel on a cold day and evening (the wares were ok, but I’m not a big shopper). Your description of the Vienna market was great; in a bizarre way, it reminded me of a vastly different mosh pit – Kathmandu!

    • I’ve been to Tallin in the summertime. I bet it’s very dark there this time of year. The ambiance up there during the Solstice is probably quite unique. It’s such a cute little city. Oh, Vienna. I think that experience gave me PTSD. The really weird thing, for me, is that everyone else looked like they were having the funnest time ever. I’ll have to remember that about Kathmandu and be prepared, if I ever go.

  8. Thanks for taking us there. I enjoyed seeing it through your eyes and words. The markets here for Christmas in Summer just lack the right atmosphere. Have a wonderful holiday. And another mug of medovina, for me. 🙂

    • I know what you mean about Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. I spent 7 years in New Caledonia and, while there are traditions unique to the island, Christmas never really felt real. A fabulous holiday to you, too, sir! We found some medovina (from Slovakia) at Prague’s market. 😀 Cheers!

  9. A nice feel about a “cold” european Christmas, Julie. Here, the temperature and trees do not exactly convey the feeling. Though of course, Christmas is the universal pretext to sell you anything. 🙂
    My curiosity was piqued by the “coiffes” on the women in one of your photos? Are those Czech? They look very much like some old “coiffes” (how do you say that in english?) from Brittany, my parents’ homeland.
    Merry Christmas et Joyeux Noël
    Brian

  10. Ah, it’s that time of year when so many of us feel forced to be superficially cheerful or look for ways to completely avoid the impending craziness. Delighted that you found “the healthiest asses” you had ever seen in Bratislava.

    • I like that in Eastern Europe, people weren’t raised to stifle how they really feel, so no one feels obligated to be cheerful unless they really are. Oddly, they seem to be much more relaxed and festive right now. The asses were some robust specimens, I tell ya. Really cute. They were actually in the Prague market. 😉

  11. Budapest’s market in Vörösmarty tér is vile. It might be my wannabe-local-who-speaks-seven-words-of-the-lingo complex, but I tend to avoid that whole area of Pest altogether. Too many tourists, too much touting… The Bratislava one seems a lot nicer! What’s this story about the ‘turbo punch’?

    • I rarely went down to that area in the 4 years I lived there, either. Have you visited Prague? The Old City here is way more obnoxious (as far as touts, tourists, Segways, and selfie sticks go) than Budapest. I’ve lived here since July and have only been down there a couple of times. I much prefer living here than in Budapest, however.

      The turbo punch…punch spiked with hard alcohol. I never got up the courage to try it.

      • No, never been to Prague, or Riga, or anywhere where you have Brits on stag dos. Don’t get me wrong, some areas of BP are touristy – much like in London, Paris or Rome – but many more aren’t. My dream, at present, would be to be living in Erzsebetvaros one of these days. Who knows?

  12. Where I work in Birmingham, we have the biggest German Christmas market outside of Germany and Austria. It gets too busy, and has been there for over ten Christmases now so I’m getting a bit bored of it. Maybe I need to see the Bratislava one.

    • The vibe at Bratislava’s market is very down-to-earth. It’s all about the party. It can get pretty boisterous, but I’ve never seen it out-of-control obnoxious. If that’s what you like in a Christmas market, then you’d probably enjoy it.

  13. Well, there’s a coincidence, no sooner do I finish one great post on travel by underground railway from someone who loves it as much as I do, than I read another great post, this time on Christmas markets. And I love markets of all types, especially Christmas ones.

    My brother-in-law loved the Christmas market at Prague so much he couldn’t stop singing its praises for the rest of the festive season. Luckily, he brought a lot of edible goodies to compensate for long-term exposure to the sound of his voice.

    I take the liberty of posting a link to the subway piece, as I kinda think people who like this will like that.

    http://andthosewerethereasons.com/?p=1927

    • Must be a day of synchronicity for you. Use it wisely, son. Your brother-in-law should work for the Prague tourist board. As if they need any help. Thanks for the link. Enjoyed the article.

  14. Christmas markets are truly wonderful. We’re supposed to have one here in Canberra this year. It’s likely to be too commercialised, so I’ll have to put Bratislava on my list.

  15. Ooooh, you write so nicely about my hometown, thank you for enjoying it! I am really happy that you like it here 🙂 Do you live in Bratislava? For how long have you been around?

  16. Bratislava is the genuine article – the UK version of a ‘European Christmas Market’ normally translates into a line of wooden sheds. By coincidence we have just returned from the Hexham event which is also genuine – local vendors selling local produce. Shame it has been such a wet day – rain turning to snow, but it didn’t seem to deter people. I liked the sound of medovina but then realised it is mead – I have tried the Lindisfarne variety and it too did not agree with me. Have a great Christmas Julie.

    • That’s good that your local market is authentic. You all are used to rain over there, right? 😉 Yeah, mead is best taken in small amounts. Kind of like egg nog, I guess. Can you imagine an egg nog hangover? A fabulous holiday to you, too, Robin!

  17. Our little town in Oregon has a “festival night” on the first Friday in December. At that time, the city Christmas tree is lit. There is a parade of the volunteer fire department and anyone with an old car or truck or tractor can join. It’s fairly commercial but the stores pour free schnapps and have baked goods for the children. Hokey, but fun and it brings the community together.

  18. Be it Bratislava or Budapest or whichever part of European continent, Christmas markets and road shows of folk artists and musicians must be a given at this point in time. It may be the same every year with not much variation, and yet no one feels complete to round the year off without it. So immerse in it all Julie. Wish you and yours merry Xmas and the very best for 2016….

  19. Hi Julie, me too, i like the festive atmosphere of Christmas Markets.I was in Prague too for Christmas some years ago and i remember the feeling of magic spreading all around.Beautiful photos, as always!

  20. So the Ghost of Christmas spoke to you? I’m a little Scrooge myself, too much xmas gives me the blues. I can still appreciate an authentic market though, such a rarity these days. I’ll take that second mug of medovina, thanks! 😀

    • Hi Lia – The Scrooge part came from being fed up with the same old Christmas routine, especially the marketing. The cartoonish bustle and overbearing holiday music in the shopping centers. An authentic market is the perfect cure. Cheers!

  21. Bratislava, the little big city, as they say, with great christmas market ! Merci pour cet article, qui fait la part belle au marché de Noël de Bratislava. Donc, les Tchèques préfèrent le marché de Bratislava ? Impressionnant ! Atmosphère conviviale de ce marché, même si certains Slovaques trouvent qu’il devient trop commercial : la rançon du succès ?

  22. All those Christmas Markets sound amazing, dear Julie… if I had to choose one, I´d pick up Vienna´s, though… I just love your description regarding it…
    Merry Christmas. Love and all my best wishes to you. Aquileana 🎄

  23. That last photo looks so inviting, Julie! 🙂 I’ve not done any of the conventional Christmas markets, though I’ve hankered after Prague a time or two. Trouble is, as you say, all those people. And even less than people do I like snow. 😦 But they’re encroaching 🙂 Recent visits to my son and daughter in Leeds and Nottingham respectively produced ‘the goods’. I think I had my fill.
    Wishing your psyche a much more settled 2016! Have a lovely Christmas 🙂

    • Thank you, Jo. There’s not even a whisper of snow over here this year. It’s hardly gotten below freezing! Good to hear you’ve fulfilled your holiday cheer. Wishing you a fabulous Christmas and sunny, snow-free 2016. 🙂

  24. My dear friend, I do love your posts. This is the third time around me (as usual) I love reading the comments. I love markets, especially Christmas markets for we are participating in an ancient ritual of community. Markets are more than commerce, the exchange of currency for product. To me, it is the need to come together for fellowship. Music, food, laughter – ah, those are the sounds that we need to hear, especially during winter, when the need is felt more keenly. Merry Christmas! I look forward to sharing the adventures in 2016. All the very, very, very best to you and yours…

    • Thank you so much for your good wishes. For me, the markets light up the dark days of winter. The very best to you as well. 🙂 Wishing you a bountiful and creative 2016!

      • Looking forward to our journey ahead!! I know exactly what you mean. When I lived in Northern Canada, winter months gave us only a few hours of daylight (sometimes 3 at most) This is why I came to love J.R.R. Tolkien – reading for those dark days. Here is one of my favourite quotes of all times: “May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

  25. You know South Pacific Christmases are not as cool, Here we’re looking for water fronts by creeks, rivers, ocean and seas, or a few degrees relief atop a mountain. Right now the markets of Europe sound a fine place to be. Loving the colours people bring to the places within cities to your colder northern world, your photos. Here today the Coral Sea was that bright lively colour between Deep ocean blue and that coral reef blue green found about cays of the pacific, an atmosphere of cool delight with a South-East breeze.

    • Hi Sean – yes, I remember the relentless South Pacific Christmas sun and heat well. Your colorful scenery and soft breeze sounds like a healing balm. Happy Holidays to you, young man.

      P.S. Did you delete your blog?

      • Happy Holidays to you too, young Julie.
        No, Julie. Not deleted, I just archived to pending (to then republish) due to some economic changes to my situation and letting the domain name lapse. Which should assist in search engine mapping of post locations rather than sending people to the old deceased domain location.

  26. It takes me back. Bonn Christmas Market in 1981, my first visit out of Australia. It was amazing and wonderful, not so big and all that gluwien.
    Next year I will have a chance to visit a Christmas market again so many thanks for your run down, not Vienna perhaps Dresden. Hope Christmas went well.

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