The Origin of the Christmas Market
The earliest Christmas markets in Germany date back to at least 1434. Local craftsmen and food vendors found that if they set up their wares around the town's churches during Christmas activities, the public would buy their goods to eat and to give as gifts for the holiday. Thus the Christkindl Market was established and over the centuries has evolved from an age-old custom to the Market we celebrate today.
In parts of Austria, Germany, northern Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, and several other central European countries the traditional bringer of Christmas gifts each year is the Christkind or Christ Child. The tradition of the Christkind as a gift bringer has its roots in the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther, in an attempt to discourage the veneration of Saint Nicholas, promulgated the idea of the Christ Child bringing gifts to children each year.
These changes created some regional differences in the celebration of Christmas within German-speaking countries, which is why many traditions today vary and sometimes overlap. These regional differences are also the reason that that many traidtional Christmas markets in Germany or Austria are called Weihnachtsmarkt, Christkindlesmarkt, or Christkindlmarkt. In the end, however, each regional version is simply a Christmas Market.
Heritage of the Erzgebirge Mountains
Many traditional parts of a Christkindl Market come from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) of Saxony in eastern Germany. During the 17th century this prosperous mining area was depleted of its natural resources and the miners had to develop another method of earning a livelihood.
Schwibbögen (Candle Arches)
The Schwibbogen is a candle holder that is often found in the windows of homes in the Erzgebirge region. The archway symbolizes the arched entry to the shafts of the ore mines and the light of the candles represent the light of the world and the hope of returning home safety each night. The carving within the arch often depicts religious scenes, such as the nativity, but can also feature historical or local scenes. Sometimes the miner and his angel wife are included in the scene.
Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas Pyramid)
The signature image of the Mifflinburg Christkindl Market is the Christmas Pyramid which originated in the Erzgebirge region in about 1850. The fascinating Christmas treasure, which is often used as a table decoration, features rotating paddles atop the four-sided, open, tapered structure. Movement is fueled by the heat from candles on the base of the pyramid, which produce the energy needed to turn the tilted blades. A central shaft connects each level of the pyramid and when the paddles are propelled by the candle heat, the fan blades rotate slowly.
The Tinsel Angel
A touching legend from the 17th century Christmas Market in Nuremberg explains the origin of the Tinsel Angel: A craftsman's only and much-loved daughter died. The man would never be happy again. For as long as he lived nothing could restore his heart or comfort him. One night his daughter appeared to him as an angel in a dream. The vision was so beautiful that upon waking the father could think of little else. He was not able to erase the picture of this angel from his mind, so he carved a head with her features in wood. In the old Nuremberg style, he fashioned a gown cut from waferthin brass called tinsel along with a high coronet of the same material. Then he added two wings made from the same tinsel.
Zwetschgenmännla (Prune Men)
The origin of the prune figure dates to the 14th century in the Nuremberg region of Germany. An old man who had been very ill wanted to give the neighborhood children something in return for taking care of him. The man was poor and had no money, so he gathered plums from the tree in his yard and began to make little men (Menchen) with nuts and dried fruits. The legs and arms were made of prunes, the body of dried figs, and the head was a walnut. He dressed the figures and gave them to the children who had been so kind to him.
The German Smoker Man or Räuchermann, originated in the Erzgebirge Mountain area of Saxony in Southeastern Germany in the late 1700’s. The carved or turned wooden figures are incense burners. The figures are crafted from two pieces of wood that fit together to form the body. The incense cones are placed inside the upper portion of the figure and the smoke escapes through the mouth. The incense is associated with the Three Wise Men and the gift of Frankincense along with gold and myrrh. The figures have traditionally represented men of ordinary, everyday occupations rather than political or military figures.
Carved nutcrackers appeared in the Erzgebirge area in 1850, and no significant changes in design have been made since that time. The nutcrackers are figures of authority and domination, with stern imposing posture and frightening faces.