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Teutonic Twinkle : In town squares, Christmas markets sell rich tradition without crass commercialism

Gress, a former Times' staffer, is an assistant to the president of Indiana University

The little angel, dressed in bright red and gold foil, beamed at me with her rosebud mouth and blue button eyes. One of the most beloved symbols of Germany’s largest Christkindlmarkt--Christmas market--she would also be the perfect Christmas tree topper.

But I waffled. We had just arrived at the Nuremberg market and beyond the angel’s glittering wings I could see more than 180 booths, all bursting with enough decorations, baubles and toys to satiate even the most crazed Christmas shopper. If I purchased this little cherub now, I would have to carry her for hours. And what if I saw something even more enticing under one of the other red-and-white striped awnings that sheltered the shops?

My husband, Bill, put an end to my indecision. “Let’s get a bratwurst and think about it.” And off we went, leaving the little angel behind. Big mistake. We never returned for her. Yet even without her, we came home from a two-week trip to Germany with a wonderful collection of Christmas ornaments and toys that are enchanting to look at and represent rich traditions of craftsmanship and holiday observance.

Over the years, we had talked repeatedly of going to Germany for the Advent season, the four-week period leading up to Christmas Day. (Advent is Latin for arrival.) It’s an important time in Germany. Beginning with the first Sunday in December--when the first of four candles on Advent wreathes are lighted--Christmas seems to command everyone’s attention. Special concerts are scheduled in almost all churches and concert halls, decorations festoon shop windows and almost everyone seems to be carrying string-bound boxes of seasonal pastries and delicacies that will serve as the centerpieces of family festivities.

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Advent is also an important time at our house, where Christmas is a treasured holiday both for its time-honored traditions and its rich spiritual significance. What better way to celebrate the season, we reasoned, than a journey to a place that spends an entire month steeped in it.

Our idle talk became reality last year when airline fares took their usual winter plunge and we were able to buy round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to Munich for $500 apiece. Steeply discounted winter hotel rates and holiday hotel packages sweetened the deal. Our stay in Germany took us to the country’s oldest Christkindlmarkt, in Munich, and the largest, in Nuremberg. We also went shopping in the medieval walled city of Rothenburg, in Fulda--a treasure trove of baroque architecture--and in Neuhof, a tiny village near Fulda that was once home to generations of Bill’s family.

At every stop, we shopped at the local Christkindlmarkt, or Christ child market (also called Weihnachtsmarkt in some parts of the country; Weihnacht means Christmas). There’s scarcely a town in Germany that doesn’t hold one.

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You smell the markets before you see them as heady aromas of sizzling bratwurst, candied almonds, mulled wine (Gluhwein), Fruchtebrot (a relative of fruitcake), Lebkuchen (Germany’s famous gingerbread) and roasting chestnuts waft over the crowds.

All of the markets we saw were glittering tent cities, composed of tidy rows of canvas stalls covered with brightly striped awnings. Some of the brilliantly lit booths were jam-packed with handicrafts such as candles, ceramics, blown glass, needlework and leather goods. Others sold gift items, such as books, clothing and bric-a-brac. Of course, there were lots of toys.

Like outdoor markets all over Europe, Germany’s Christmas markets are traditionally held in the center of town. In Munich and Nuremberg--the two best known to foreign tourists--that’s at Marienplatz and at the cobblestoned Hauptmarkt, which is squeezed between the Rathaus (town hall), Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and the Schoner Brunnen, a gilded 60-foot spire-like Gothic fountain. In Fulda, a small picturesque town near the former East German border, the market is held among the half-timbered houses in the town hall square and in tiny Neuhof, outside Fulda, we chanced upon the Weihnachtsmarkt being set up after church: 16 stalls in a schoolyard.

We prowled the crowded aisles of the Munich market and came to some decisions. Reluctantly, we ruled out glass ornaments, figuring they would be difficult to get home in one piece and knowing that they are readily available in this country.

We also had to come to terms with our budget. Although we could have filled a shopping bag with an assortment of items all under $5 and many under $3, we found ourselves enchanted by handmade items that ran considerably more. For example, a 2-by-3-inch gingerbread mold, hand carved in wood, was about $5.50. But the 6-by-6-inch model carved with an intricate floral arrangement was about $31 and the creche mold was about $290.

At the straw booths, the smallest snowflake was about $3.20, but the more elaborate mobiles were closer to $55. Of course, we were captivated by the latter.

After five days of shopping the Munich market and exploring the city, we decided to make up a mental list that included nutcrackers, a creche, hand-carved wooden toys and some of the ethereal angels made of shavings and feathers that we had spotted dancing in the breezes from simple gold strings. Armed with our shopping list, we picked up a rental car and headed for Nuremberg.

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We had planned our itinerary so that we would miss the weekend crowds in Nuremberg, second only to Munich in size and significance in Bavaria. Since it was the second week of December, we also missed the traditional opening ceremony (this year at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 29) that features a young girl dressed as the Christ child extending holiday greetings to those gathered in the town square. Later during Advent, Nuremberg also stages a lantern procession (this year at 6:15 p.m. Dec. 12) in which schoolchildren parade through the streets carrying handmade lanterns.

Nuremberg’s market is also known for its rich variety of traditional crafts, including Zinnfiguren (tin filigree ornaments), and Rauchermannchen (little smoking men), wooden figures into which tiny incense cones are placed so that the fragrant smoke wafts from their pipes. But one a local specialty is the Zwetschgenmanner or prune people: little figures whose heads are made of walnuts, bodies of dried figs, arms and legs of prunes and hands and feet of raisins.

Ranging from about 4 to 10 inches high, they are said to bring luck to the home in which they are displayed. We saw prune farmers, prune hunters, prune witches and prune chimney sweeps. We even saw a bride and groom and what looked for all the world like prune leprechauns. Shoppers crowded around the many stalls, chuckling at the expressions and torn between the choices. Who could resist them? Not us: We bought four for about $22 total.

My little red and gold angel, the Rauschgoldengel, is another Nuremberg specialty. Legend has it that she dates back to the early 1600s, when Melchior Nauser is said to have fashioned the first one to help his wife get over the death of their daughter. She may also be derived from the angel of the Annunciation. Originally, she was armless, but today’s Rauschgoldengel has arms bearing candles.

Laden with prune people and Lebkuchen cut in Christmas shapes and then hand-painted and glazed to hang on the tree (about $2 each), we headed for lunch at the restaurant Herrenbrau--overlooking Christkindlmarkt. It was one of best meals we had during our two-week trip.

Bill had a hunter-style veal schnitzel in a mushroom sauce with egg noodles ($16) while I feasted on sliced tenderloin of pork with sauted apples in Calvados ($20) accompanied by thin potatoes that had been fried with crisp pieces of bacon (possibly the best potatoes we had in two weeks filled with potatoes).

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Thus fortified, we headed toward what turned out to be a very pleasant surprise: one of Nuremberg’s more aggressively promoted tourist sights. What was surprising is how much we liked it and how much we bought there.

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Handwerkerhof Nurnberg am Konigstor (the Handwork House by the Royal Gate) is best described as a medieval-style mall where craftspeople turn out ceramics, dolls, stained glass, leather goods, gold and silver jewelry, and arts and crafts in 16 shops that occupy the half-timbered houses in the city’s historic walls.

There, as at most of the shops, the artists workroom was adjacent to the showroom, so at the leather shop (Lederkunst) the air was redolent with the aroma of leather, wax and stain. A man’s shoulder bag was about $55; a woman’s oxblood-colored bag, about 5 by 4 inches, was $63. Both were beautiful, as were the woodblock prints of city scenes ($10.50 to $56 each) that we saw in another shop, BV-Wechselstube und Munzprage.

But we had our hearts set on wooden toys and we began our buying in earnest at a store called Holzspielzeug, where simple tops and toys at an outdoor display ranged from $1.40 to $7.

Then we discovered Kunstgewerbe nearby, a shop so crowded with Christmas ornaments and people that shoppers were lined up outside.

Here we saw some of the same things we had seen at the Christkindlmarkt, but the quality seemed better (and the prices higher). We came away with a 14-inch-tall handmade nutcracker ($70) and a basketful of tiny, detailed, hand-carved and hand-painted ornaments: a 1 1/2-inch wooden angel playing a trumpet ($15); a jolly farmer driving a cart with a smiling pig in the back ($14); a tiny cuckoo clock ($12.50) and a 2-inch-high puppet stage with puppets that looked just like a Punch and Judy show ($11.50). The one item that we longed to buy, but didn’t since we’d spotted the nutcracker first, was a Weihnachtspyramide--or Christmas pyramid--the elaborate candle-powered merry-go-round that seems to be in every shop window. Prices range from just a few dollars for small versions to thousands for pyramids that are 6 to 10 feet high. The one we liked best at Kunstgewerbe was $95.

We were again tempted by Weihnachtspyramiden at our last destination: Rothenburg. But once again, it was not at the Christkindlmarkt but at one of the most aggressively promoted stores we encountered in Germany: Kathe Wohlfahrt’s Christkindlmarkt and Christmas Village.

The Wohlfahrt family runs not one store but five in Rothenburg selling Bavarian wares, dolls and clocks, but it is the Christmas shop, with its 12-foot-high nutcracker and 18-foot-high rotating Christmas pyramid that is best known. Thousands visit the shop that employs multilingual sales clerks, accepts most major currencies and ships worldwide. This is one slick operation. It is also a gorgeous store.

From the delicate miniature table clocks ($70 to $320) to the handmade wax angels; from inlaid music boxes ($96 and up) to a whole shelf of beer steins ($35 and up) and Black Forest cuckoo clocks ($210 to $630), I wanted almost everything that I saw. But we took a deep breath and vowed to restrict our purchases to Christmas ornaments. That decision narrowed our choices to glass, wood, brass, pewter, wax and straw. We came away with a painted tin filigree Christmas tree ($4.85); three of the ethereal 2-inch angels made of wood shavings and white feathers ($8 each) (“Just imagine a tree decorated with these little angels and tiny white lights,” said one sales clerk.); a Christmas tree on a little red sled ($11) and snowflakes made of wood shavings and decorated with red and gold beads ($5.95).

It was not until we were home that we realized we had neglected to buy a creche. In fact, somehow, we hadn’t seen many. We regretted that, but there were other things that we hadn’t seen, to our considerable relief. There were no garish neon lights, no blaring ads for electric razors and the latest kitchen novelty, and no metallic Christmas trees decorated in apricot and mauve. As we reminisced about the Advent season we had participated in, we relished our memories and vowed to return just as soon as we could. We have to; we left an angel behind.

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GUIDEBOOK

German Market

Strategies

Getting there: Nuremberg, Munich, Rothenburg, Fulda and Neuhof are all served by Frankfurt or Munich airports.

Where to stay: We stayed at the following comfortable hotels. Reservations are recommended.

Hotel Adria, Liebigstrasse 8a, 80538, Munich; telephone 011-49-89-29-3081; fax 011-49-89-22-7015. This comfortable and clean hotel is in an excellent location. Doubles: about $125, including breakfast.

Hotel und Gasthof Zum Rappen, Vorm Wurzburger Tor, D-91541, Rothenburg ob ter Tauber; tel. 011-49-9861-6071; fax 011-49-9861-6076. Doubles: $75 to $175, including breakfast.

Merian Hotel, Unschlittplatz 7, 90403, Nuremberg; tel. 011-49-91120-4194; fax 011-49-911-22-1274. Doubles: about $125, including breakfast.

Where to shop: Hours and days vary; for information, check with the German National Tourist Office (listed below). Take Deutsch marks. Vendors do not accept credit cards or checks.

Fulda Christkindlmarkt, between Stadtpfarrkirche and Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), Nov. 28-Dec. 22.

Handwerkerhof Nurnberg, near the Royal Gate, Nuremberg.

Kathe Wohlfahrt Christkindlmarkt and Christmas Village, Herrngasse 2, Rothenburg.

Munich Christkindlmarkt, Marienplatz (St. Mary’s square), Nov. 30-Dec. 24.

Neuhof Christkindlmarkt, Neuhof elementary school, Dec. 7-8.

Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt, Hauptmarkt, Nov. 29-Dec. 24.

It’s up to you to wrap your purchases safely and to pack them so they won’t break.

For more information: German National Tourist Office, 11766 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 750, Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 575-9799; fax (310) 575-1565.


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