A Brief History of Christmas Markets

Now a global phenomenon, the holiday tradition traces its roots to medieval Europe

Christmas market in Goslar, Germany, at dusk
Christmas market in Goslar, Germany, at dusk Juergen Sack / Getty Images

For many, Christmas markets evoke nostalgia, with their glowing lights, sugary smells and joyful sounds reminding visitors of yuletides past. But while the tradition of street vendors hawking their wares around the holidays dates back hundreds of years, the Christmas market as it’s known today is a surprisingly modern creation.

“The irony is that [the market] poses as this ancient, ancient tradition, and that’s what people think about,” says Joseph Perry, a historian at Georgia State University. “But in fact, it’s a lot more recent.”

Held annually in dozens of cities around the world, from Zagreb, Croatia, to Dresden, Germany, to Shanghai, China, to Chicago, Illinois, Christmas markets typically feature open-air stalls selling gifts, seasonal treats and hot beverages. Ornate light displays, decorations and festive performances often accompany these offerings.

Postcard of a Christmas market
Postcard of a Christmas market Brück & Sohn via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Nostalgia for a past that doesn’t exist—one of “collective holiday harmony,” writes Perry in Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History—is central to the appeal of Christmas markets. Yet the tradition is rooted in a mercantile function, underpinned by 19th-century cultures of commerce and consumption that “deeply marked these supposedly timeless markets,” according to Perry.

The origins of Christmas markets

The Christmas market’s roots stretch back to Vienna in 1296, when Duke Albrecht I authorized 14-day fairs in the month of December. Despite the timing of these festivities, the fairs weren’t directly connected to Christmas and did not appear to be religious in nature.

Another early example of an Advent month—but not necessarily Christmas-themed—market is found in Bautzen, Germany. In 1384, Wenceslas IV, king of Bohemia, gave the city the right to hold a free market, allowing butchers to sell meat until Christmas.

“Whether this constitutes an actual Christkindlesmarkt”—literally “Christ child market” in German—“is disputed, and it has been argued that the beginnings of … Christmas markets are probably later than is often indicated in the media and popular science,” write Dirk H.R. Spennemann and Murray Parker, both experts on cultural heritage management at Charles Sturt University in Australia, for the Heritage journal.

Aerial view of the Dresden Striezelmarkt
Aerial view of the Dresden Striezelmarkt LH DD/Dittrich via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Scholars are often reluctant to definitively identify the first official Christmas market. (Cities themselves are less reticent, with Dresden proudly proclaiming its title of “the oldest Christmas market in Germany.”) Still, Spennemann and Parker note that “continually operating annual markets” include the Dresden Striezelmarkt, which started in 1434, and the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which began no later than 1628.

Christmas markets may have mainly German origins, but they eventually spread to German-speaking parts of Italy, Switzerland and France. This trend fits with the general provenance of Christmas practices: The tradition of putting up a tree to celebrate the holiday reportedly started in Germany in the 16th century. According to the Reverend Robert Kolb, a theologian at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, the first written record of the Christmas tree appears in a 1527 document from the German city of Mainz.

Redefining Christmas traditions

During the medieval era, giving gifts was more closely associated with December 6, Saint Nicholas’ Day, than Christmas. As the patron saint of children, Nicholas was believed to reward good behavior with gifts. Christmas, on the other hand, marked the end of Advent, a period of fasting and religious reflection, and the beginning of 12 days of celebration.

“Once Christmas Day came around, if you had the stamina, then you were expected to eat, drink, be merry, dress up, play games [and] go dancing around the neighborhood for 12 days solid before you collapsed in a heap,” Anne Lawrence-Mathers, a historian at the University of Reading in England, told History.com in 2021.

Aerial view of the Erfurt, Germany, Christmas market
Aerial view of the Erfurt, Germany, Christmas market Ansgar Koreng via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0

The idea of giving gifts on December 25 rather than December 6 is generally attributed to Martin Luther, the German priest who sparked the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. Emphasizing the importance of a direct relationship with God, Luther and his followers rejected religious art, particularly icons of saints, as idolatrous distractions from faith-based worship.

“As part of [Luther’s] trying to counter the veneration of the saints as a central element of daily Christian practice, he proposed moving the giving of gifts from Saint Nicholas,” Kolb says. This shift, he adds, aligned with the reformer’s vision of God as a “good, giving parent.”

As gift-giving became synonymous with Christmas, some members of society objected to the increasingly indulgent nature of the holiday. In the 17th century, English Puritans argued that Christmas had turned into an excuse to party and drink to excess. An ordinance passed by British Parliament in 1643 noted that Christians had turned “this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.”

The commercialization of Christmas

Despite these criticisms of the yuletide season, Christmas markets gained traction across Europe in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Much like today, they were places to buy meat, baked goods and commodities. According to Spennemann and Parker, they often stood near churches, acting as a convening ground for citizens of all classes, from workers to churchgoers to foreign travelers to the nobility.

Vienna Christmas market in 2017
Vienna Christmas market in 2017 C.Stadler/Bwag via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

As Christmas markets grew in popularity, governments realized they needed greater regulation. Berlin, for example, in 1750 decreed the location of the city’s Christmas market and how long it could remain open (from December 11 to January 6). The market itself grew from roughly 50 stalls in 1650 to about 600 in 1840, per Heritage.

Christmas markets were directly impacted by the passage of time and changing tastes. A Frankfurt police order from 1869 stipulated that the city’s Christmas market could only run from December 5 to January 1, with no sales made during mass on December 25 and 26 or January 1. Only “genuine Christmas objects” could be sold, including “children’s toys, Christmas trees, nativity scenes, gingerbread and confectionery,” according to Heritage.

Aside from religious constraints and local regulations, 19th-century Christmas markets had to compete with department stores, whose mass-produced goods were far cheaper—and readily accessible—than homemade wares sold at outdoor stalls.

“In conjunction with the implied political power of the emerging department stores, Christmas markets were relegated to increasingly peripheral settings, as well as with traders (mainly children) roaming the streets with their wares,” write Spennemann and Parker. “Although widely deplored by residents, the Berlin city administration cited impediments to foot and horse traffic as justification for successive relocations of the venue for main Christmas markets to ever less desirable locations.”

The “golden age” of Christmas markets

By the end of the 19th century, Christmas markets were on the decline. In the 1920s, journalist Hans Ostwald wrote of Berlin that “only the meager remnants of the Christmas market in the east of the capital city still tempt the desires and the hopes of children.”

The burgeoning Nazi regime revived the tradition in the 1930s, reappropriating it as a propaganda symbol of German greatness. The Nazis moved the Berlin market back to the city center, where it attracted a record-breaking 1.5 million visitors in 1934. Two years later, two million people attended.

Shoppers admire holiday decorations on sale at a Christmas market in Vienna, Austria, on December 19, 1953.
Shoppers admire holiday decorations on sale at a Christmas market in Vienna, Austria, on December 19, 1953. Photo by Votava / brandstaetter images via Getty Images

The Nazis ensured that Christmas markets remained true to their name by mandating in 1933 that they sell items specifically related to the holiday. Approved wares included Christmas tree decorations, toys, gingerbread and advent wreath binders—objects that deemphasized Christmas’ religious roots in favor of presenting the celebration as an Aryan, German nationalist tradition. Organizers used garlands, glass balls and fairy lights to create a festive atmosphere; in the late 1930s, food stalls offering bratwurst, herring and other German treats also became market mainstays.

“While claiming to be rooted in tradition, critical to these developments was the transformation of the Christmas markets from a primarily mercantile operation to an experiential event”—the modern incarnation seen today, write Spennemann and Parker.

Germany’s Christmas markets wound down during World War II but experienced a resurgence after the conflict’s end, in large part due to the rise of consumerism. By the late 1960s and ’70s, markets were opening as early as the last weekend in November, affording shoppers even more spending opportunities. Today, Germany hosts around 3,000 Christmas markets annually. Most of the country’s smaller markets date back 50 to 60 years, making them relative newcomers.

In recent decades, Christmas markets have proliferated worldwide, attracting visitors in Europe, North America, Asia and Oceania. While each market is unique, an underlying fascination with the past unites many. Consider for instance, San Francisco’s Great Dickens Christmas Fair, which transports guests back to Victorian London, or the Dresden Striezelmarkt, now in its 588th year.

A Christmas market in Shanghai, China, on December 10, 2022
A Christmas market in Shanghai, China, on December 10, 2022 CFOTO / Future Publishing via Getty Images

This very human desire to romanticize the markets of yesteryear isn’t a new phenomenon. In the 1830s, German Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck published a novella set during the Berlin Christmas market of 1791, expressing nostalgia for the so-called golden age of markets past.

“Most splendid were the evening hours, when this wide street … was illuminated by many thousands of lights from the booths,” Tieck wrote, per a translation by Perry. “And thousands strolled along, jovial with plans to buy, telling stories, laughing, crying out loud across the sweet aromas of the various sugar and marzipan pastries, those fruits, in alluring imitation, figures of all kinds, animals and people, all shining with bright colors, which smiled out at the eager onlookers.”

While that idealized vision of Christmas markets may not have existed exactly as Tieck wrote it, the feelings of joy, the crowds of people and the scent of sugar in the air that he described continue to ring true 200 years later.

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