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Shopping: Germany

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

November 10, 1996|ROBIN ROY GRESS | Gress, a former Times' staffer, is an assistant to the president of Indiana University

NUREMBERG, Germany — 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.

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.

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