Germans live their dreams of Christmas past

Imre Karacs visits Nuremberg's chocolate-box world of medieval markets set up for the festive season

As if touched by pixie dust, German towns undergo a miraculous transformation this time of the year, sprouting pre-fab thatched cottages and ferris wheels in their midst, and enveloping themselves in the aromatic halo of mulled wine and the acrid smoke of sizzling Bratwurst. For a month, all social activities governed by the unremitting approach of the festive season begin and end here - at the Christmas market on the main square of every hamlet in the land.

They are not so much a retail outlet as a way of life. Other cultures may look upon their annual shopping foray as a chore, but to Germans Christmas offers the perfect excuse for a leisurely stroll down memory lane, into a chocolate-box world of fairy tales and good home cooking. You will find none of the pushing and shoving here that must be endured in the stores lining the adjacent streets. There is no early closing, and even on Sundays the market stays open. The tradition, dating back to the late Middle Ages, outranks more recent laws which impose a deathly curfew on the high streets.

This would not be Germany if ranking did not play an important role in the Christmas market ethos. There is a rigid pecking order among towns, each vying for a slot in the national league that defines their relative quality of life. The biggest cities try to put on the biggest markets, thus failing miserably to recreate the charm and intimacy of their smaller competitors.

At the apex of the hierarchy stands Nuremberg, its "Christ-child market" the grand-daddy of them all. Forget the Meistersinger and a couple of notable historical events in this century - Nuremberg derives its greatest fame among Germans from the huts that cover the cobble-stone square in front of the town hall in December. It is not the biggest, but it is the oldest, going back to 1559, and it boasts Germany's staple Christmas sweet, the Nurnberger Lebkuchen, which can only be bought and eaten during the festive season. For those of us addicted to this superior version of gingerbread, Christmas cannot come soon enough.

There are dozens of varieties of Lebkuchen on offer, at stalls run by Lebkuchen dynasties which guard their secret recipes and the family name as jealously as the great wine-makers of the Mosel. But that comes at the end of the tour. Visitors usually start at the kiosks selling a perplexing range of Wurst available in all shapes and sizes, from Nuremberg's celebrated small, spicy, variety, to the cucumber-shaped Krakauer catering for people with a higher tolerance for cholesterol. You can spend an afternoon crawling from sausage-stand to sausage-stand, alighting in between at stalls selling nothing but warm Gluhwein. Then it is time for Lebkuchen, though perhaps not before a glass or three of sickly sweet liqueur.

Thus imbued with the spirit of the season, the hunt for presents can begin. This being an ancient market, the gifts on offer are timeless, made mostly from wholesome German wood. Pine as they might for Buzz Lightyear, the kids will be getting wooden Hansels and Gretels, or the little drummer boy in clay. Not one of dozens of stalls sells model train sets or - God forbid - computer games. There is wood everywhere, row upon row of brightly coloured, varnished figures dangling from pegs. For the grown- ups, there are gnomes and winged angels to adorn the garden, rocks and minerals for the mantlepiece, and books by the Grimm brothers for the shelves. Best-sellers, such as Daniel Goldhagen's infamous study of German war-time guilt, might just as well not exist.

The sound of the outside world wafts in occasionally, from the direction of the Belorussian fiddler in folk costume tormenting his instrument and innocent passers-by, and from the muffled ting-a-ling of "Jingle Bells" encased in a music box. Otherwise, one can almost imagine being back in 16th century Germany, standing somewhere near the spot where Hans Sachs, the greatest Meistersinger of all, cobbled his shoes together while practising his scales.

As a business venture, the market is a disaster. Margins on the trinkets are slim, and the vendors are complaining this year, as they have done for centuries, that the punters flock to their mock half-timbered huts to browse, not to part with their money. Yet despite their whingeing, the stall-holders will be back next year, and in the years to come, for as long as Germans will cling to the old-fashioned idea that there is more to Christmas than extravagant presents and fat profits.

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