A Short Guide to the Frankfurt Christmas Market for English-speaking Visitors

The Frankfurt Weihnachtsmarkt is one of the largest of its kind in Germany and draws hundreds of thousands of people each week during Advent; here are several reasons why, as well as a few insider tips:

Tradition.

The Christmas Market goes back a long, long way – it was first mentioned in the year 1393, a century before Columbus even arrived in America. Traditionally, the Christmas Market opened around St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) and continued into early January.

Today´s Weihnachtsmarkt features well over 200 stands, a Christmas tree almost as tall as the skyline, and – last but not least – a beautiful backdrop (Town Hall, the Alte Nikolaikirche and the historic half-timbered houses lining the market square).

Glühwein.

The mulled wine goes part and parcel with the Christmas Market. In fact, one is never more than a few meters away from a Glühwein stand at any given time. Mulled wine sounds somewhat tame in English – the German “Glühwein”, literally “glowing wine” – is much more descriptive! Even if you don´t drink alcohol, you might want to give it a try (non-alchoholic) – if nothing else, to warm your hands and heart.

Weather.

If you´re from Malibu or Melbourne, it´s going to be cold(!) at the Christmas Market. Dress warmly. And, if someone asks, remember to say: “Mir ist kalt!”, not the literal English equivalent, “Ich bin kalt!”. Locals may think you´ve just frozen to death.

Bethmännchen.

This holiday specialty, which celebrated its 180th birthday last year (2018), originates from Frankfurt and consists of marzipan decorated with almond slices. The four almond halves originally placed on the “Bethmännchen” were thought to symbolize the four sons of the prominent banking family. After one of the sons died, one of the four almond slices was symbolically removed. Another theory has it that the sweets were originally called “Bet-männer” – praying men, because the halved almonds resembled praying hands. Whatever their origin, they´re quite “lecker”!

Carillon.

It´s the same word in English and refers to the Turmglockenspiel in the tower of the Old Nicholas Church on the market square. Enjoy listening to German Christmas Carols each day at 9am, 12pm and 5pm. Indeed, the carillon is one of a kind in Frankfurt! If you need to burn off some calories from the gingerbread (see “Lebkuchen”), you can join the carillonneur on her climb up to the bell tower!

The Alte Nikolaikirche is open each day and provides a place for quiet reflection and prayer, as well as offering many worship services, historic walking tours and concerts.

Lebkuchen.

The German version of gingerbread, “Lebkuchen”, was once prepared in the cloisters in Advent and given primarily to the poor and needy. It wasn´t so much a sweet gingerbread as it was – implied by the German name – a “life-giving cake”, helping the weak, elderly and poor stay alive during the harsh winters. “Lebkuchen” contains spices such as ginger, cinnamon, aniseed and coriander, which are good for the heart, lungs and strengthening the immune system.

Nikolaus.

The German equivalent of Santa Claus arrives early, December 6th, and is something of a harbinger of Christmas joy. The wonderful part of this tradition is that the Christ Child doesn´t need to compete with St. Nick and his reindeer come Christmas Eve.

For Americans being asked to defend the American “export” of the jolly Coca-Cola Santa Claus to Europe: simply remind your German Gesprächspartner of the fact that the first Santa illustration was created by the German(!) artist Thomas Nast, who was born in Landau.

Lichterzauber.

If you think the Christmas lights are lovely from” below “, you should see them from “above”, namely from the roof-top gallery of the St. Nicholas Church overlooking the Christmas Market! On a clear day (which, unfortunately, isn´t often in this part of God´s world), one can almost see the skyline of the Big Apple (Manhattan)…or at least the skyline of the Little Apple (“Mainhattan”/ Frankfurt) …

Kunsthandwerk.

One of the attractions of the Christmas Market is the large variety of colorful handicrafts. During the Middle Ages, the big “hits” at the Frankfurt Christmas Fair were the “Baldin” (a wool scarf more than a meter long, to be wrapped around the neck) and the “Stäuchelscher” (the forerunner of our winter mittens). Warm gloves, fashionable scarves and a host of attractive crafts abound at the Christmas Market.

Großes Stadtgeläut.

If you didn´t hear it at the beginning of Advent, then you will want to experience it on Christmas Eve: the “Großes Stadtgeläut”, the ringing of the church bells throughout Center City. All 10 churches ring their bells for 30 minutes and the result is literally a symphony of bells. The best place to hear the Stadtgeläut is the Eiserner Steg (bridge) or the Neue Kräme, the pedestrian zone leading down from the Zeil toward the Main river. The “Großes Stadtgeläut”, which is unique to Frankfurt, takes place only four times a year.

Weihnachtsgurke.

Many Germans think that the so-called “Christmas Pickle” is from the New World, while most Americans guess it has its roots in Old Germany. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between. Whatever its origins, this Christmas ornament has grown in popularity over the past few years.  One finds a wide variety of Christmas pickle ornaments at the stands of the Christmas Market, e.g. at the stand of Tourismus + Congress GmbH.

It is said that parents once hid the pickle-shaped ornament among the branches of the Christmas tree. The children had to look for the pickle without touching the tree. The first one to discover the pickle became the first to open his or her Christmas presents. Incidentally, it was Frank Winfield Woolworth who imported the first Christmas ornaments from Germany to the U.S. around 1880. Last but not least, the so-called “Christmas Pickle Capital of the World” is Berrien Springs, Michigan, which celebrates a Christmas Pickle Festival each year at the beginning of December.