We hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoyed spending time with loved ones. While many know today as Black Friday, for us, it’s officially the start of the Christmas season!
Around this time of year, city centers across Europe transform. As the sun sets around 5:00 pm, Christmas markets help bring spirit and cheer to the otherwise dreary and cold winter month. Lights draped on lampposts, trees, and stalls twinkle in the night. Little stalls line one by one next to each other, selling homemade crafts, candy, chocolates, and Christmas decorations. If luck has it, soft sounds of Christmas music will pipe through speakers as snow softly falls from above.
With origins back to the Middle Ages, Vienna’s December market (Dezembermarkt) gets credit for being the first Winter market in Europe. Shop owners petitioned to hold a market for a couple of days at the start of the winter season so that residents could stock up on supplies to hold them over for the Winter season. Over the years, this expanded to local artisans selling toys and baked goods alongside the shop owners for residents to buy Christmas gifts for their loved ones.
The Winter market tradition expanded outside Vienna as many European cities like Munich, Frankfurt, and Dresden adopted the event. And like any good marketing campaign, Germany rebranded the Winter markets as the Christmas markets we know and love today. With Germany claiming to be home to the first Christmas markets over 600 years ago, you know they do it best.
I talked Jordan into letting the Christmas season start a week early, as France doesn’t have the Thanksgiving holiday to earmark the start of the festivities. But don’t worry, we had a French Friendsgiving fondue instead. And while I have been on a blogging hiatus for five months, the start of the Christmas season was a good enough reason to get back on and start writing again.
After staring at multiple computer screens for 40+ hours a week for my job, I’ve been unwilling and unmotivated to write on a computer for fun. I’ve been investing my time in non-screen activities, like knitting, while also trying to learn that it’s ok not to be productive 100% of my waking hours.
Knitting was supposed to be a stress-free hobby, but I liked the challenge and picked an advanced pattern to use. Three attempts later and I finally finished a custom-fitted beanie for Jordan. I made the hat too small on my first attempt, so it turned into a beanie for me instead. My second attempt went well until something cut through the piece and made the threads unravel. I knew it wouldn’t look good when I attempted to patch it, so I considered this piece a loss.
He was a great sport on the third attempt, as I periodically put the beanie on his head to ensure it would fit. I’ll tell you it was all part of the plan to be finished right by the Christmas season. But we both know that’s not true. Burnt out from my supposed stress-free hobby, I am setting down the knitting needles for the remainder of the year.
Speaking of the remainder of the year, that is the same amount of time remaining with our expat assignment in France.
Nearly three years have flown by, and while extremely bittersweet and with mixed emotions, it’s time to go home. Jordan and I will be back in South Carolina on the first of the year.
With only four weekends remaining as expats in France, we feel a sense of renewed urgency to take advantage of living abroad before moving back to suburbia. We’ve prioritized these next four weekends to experience as much European Christmas joy as possible before returning to the states. Bring on the Christmas markets, hot cocoa, gingerbread cookies, and mulled wine! And since we got a bonus weekend ahead of Thanksgiving, we really have five weekends of Christmas celebrations.
Last year, COVID severely limited the Christmas markets available as there were rules and restrictions across Europe. We made the best of it by visiting the Strasbourg Christmas market, the capital of Christmas, and spending a week traveling through Germany to visit different Christmas markets while abiding by their strict COVID rules. I finished that post a year ago but have yet to share it. In an attempt to clear out my drafts, that post will be coming soon!
This year, with limited restrictions stopping us, here are the Christmas markets we are planning to visit:
- Manchester and Liverpool (already visited with our bonus pre-Thanksgiving weekend)
- Gdansk, Poland
- Salzburg, Austria
- Zurich, Switzerland
- Lyon (obviously, as it’s right down the street from us)
- a TBD mystery location!
We picked these cities for the convenience of traveling to them after work on the weekends and to experience different cultures and how they celebrate Christmas.
The Manchester and Liverpool markets were attractive to us as they adapted the German-style Christmas markets with an English twist. We wondered how they would differ from the iconic markets we visited in Germany last year.
The Manchester Christmas market has been running each season for twenty-four years. The city’s icon, the Manchester bee, was integrated throughout the stalls and decorations, representing the city center as “a hive of activity.” Scattered throughout the city center were over 220 stalls to visit. There was an ice skating rink, multiple themed bars (one with a curling lane!), and countless Greek and other multi-cultural food stands like the delicious Dutch stroopwafel.
On Sunday, street performers were scattered throughout the stalls as people played music or walked around on stilts while posing for photos. We enjoyed scouting out the best Christmas mug across the stalls to add to our growing collection. We settled for a polar bear one, as it was the cutest! While a great start to the Christmas season, there needed to be more variety in the stalls. Many were duplicates selling the same (cheap) items, and we were surprised at the limited representation from local artisans. However, we did luck out with a beautiful Christmas ornament with the Manchester bee logo.
The Liverpool Christmas market felt more like a carnival than a market. Complete with a tubing slide, kitschy carnival rides, and games promising that everyone is a winner. We stopped in a tee-pee-shaped bar blasting Shania Twain and were through the market within an hour. Luckily, it was right by the train station and left us plenty of time to go sightseeing in the birthplace of the Beatles!
Up next, we leave tonight for Austria to experience Salzburg’s Christmas markets, with origins back to the fifteenth century!
P.S. If you’ve made it this far, let me know your favorite Thanksgiving dish. While fondue is delicious, I miss my family’s pecan pie!