Berlin has a rich and varied Christmas market tradition to distract its residents from winter’s misery. (I’m getting banal, aren’t I? Weather, weather, weather.) But truly, when there’s very little else to get people out of the house than the promise of a steaming mug of mulled wine and a hot bratwurst poking out either end of a round white roll, you appreciate what a good Christmas market can do.
A trip to the Christmas market begins with Glühwein, Germany’s take on mulled wine. This serves two purposes. The first is to help you get into the mood. In the same way a bite of bread pudding always takes me back to the Old Country Buffet, a very rural American buffet chain with surprisingly good fried chicken and hot ham sunbathing under a heat lamp, or the way my mother’s apple pie always feels like fall – you can’t really be at a Christmas market unless you’ve had a mug of Glühwein.
The second reason is much less romantic. By the time you’ve left the subway station and made it to the market, your feet are already frozen and you’ve got the shoulder shimmy shakes. A little hot drink made of a little hot alcohol goes a long way in warming you up.
The next thing you do at a Christmas market is walk. Each market is set up in its own little maze of tents and shacks selling sweets and toys, Christmas gifts, decorations, and other useless bits and bobs. Glühwein in hand, you wander from stand to stand picking up stocking stuffers and baubles for the tree.
Soon it’s time for a refill on that empty mug. This time, you’ll nestle up to a spot around a tall, standing-room only table and send someone off to buy sausages – classic bratwurst or the special kind from Thüringen, whose flavor hints at caraway, marjoram, and garlic. My favorite are the Knackwurst. The skin cracks apart as you bite down, and the meat isn’t as peppery as a bratwurst, but intensely porky and juicy.
Depending on how big this Christmas market is, perhaps now is a good time to ride the Ferris wheel and look out over the market below, the little people walking in black coats. Or maybe there’s a swing carousel. At Alexanderplatz, it looms above the market, twice as tall as anything else, and when you’re so high in the air, you feel the frozen water slash against your skin before it flocks to snow down below and the wind is icy, but you feel at peace, the tinny carnival Christmas music just out of earshot.
On the ground again, it’s time for another hot drink. Not Glühwein this time, unless you’re in the mood for punishment. After a while, Glühwein starts to taste like melted gummy bears with too much clove, too much star anise. Now it’s time for hot chocolate piled with whipped cream and cocoa powder or warm apple cider.
Another round in the brisk cold, and you’re ready to eat again. Deep-fried camembert, oozing out of its crisp packet, grated potato latkes with sour cream and chives, baby pancakes with powdered sugar, fist-sized marshmallows covered in milky chocolate, gingerbread hearts, or kale, stewed for hours in its own potlikker.
At the end of the night, there’s Eierpunsch for the strong of heart. The drink is made from egg yolks, beaten together with sugar, white wine, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. It’s a pretty drink – a silky, chiffon yellow. But its flavor is eggier than an eggnog and the hot wine is almost cloying. This is a drink you only drink once a year.
And by the time December is over, by the time your feet have wandered through every cold market corner, you’re ready to celebrate Christmas at home, inside in the warmth, in the quiet. No more Glühwein or bratwurst or Eierpunsch, just a plate of cookies and carols on the radio and your own little tree, shining light.