Christmas Markets 2015 - it's holiday time

Not-to-be-missed Christmas markets in Prague (and beyond) for 2015

With snow flurries in the forecast and the smell of evergreen Advent wreaths and mulled wine in the air, one of the busiest and most highly-anticipated times of the year, the Christmas Market season, has arrived.

Numerous festivities, including seasonal fairs, markets and special events, accompany the Advent season in the Czech Republic. Perhaps the most well-known is the Christmas Market in Prague's Old Town Square kicking off this Saturday, November 28. Although there will not be the official tree lighting ceremony this year, from the late afternoon on Saturday, the tree will change colors on the hour to the rhythm of music. This year's national Christmas tree measures 23 meters tall and is a 50-65 year old spruce from Česká Lípa, a town in northern Bohemia.

The Christmas market in Old Town Square is the largest of the Czech Christmas markets; it is also the most crowded, particularly on weekends. Venders line the square selling blown-glass Christmas tree decorations, wooden ornaments, marionettes and an assortment of market food, including sausages manufactured in the Czech Republic, Prague ham and gingerbread cookies. Enjoy a glass of mulled wine made from an award-winning Spanish recipe, hot mead or Czech beer while you take in the market atmosphere.

A stage offers ongoing musical and artistic entertainment, including performances by children's choirs and folk ensembles. As in years past, there will be a live nativity with donkeys, sheep and other animals and a workshop station where children can make crafts. The Old Town Square Christmas Market runs through January 3, 2016, and the markets are notably less crowded during the week between Christmas and New Year's. Check the market website in upcoming days for a complete schedule of activities.

If you can't wait until this weekend for some Christmas cheer, check out the Prague 2 neighborhood markets at Náměstí Míru and Tylovo náměstí, which are already open. Each year I stop by the Náměstí Míru market so that my children can choose a hand-blown glass ornament to add to our Christmas tree. Over the years, we've accumulated Krtek, a black cat, a shiny blue automobile, a snowman and a village church. The ornaments are made in the Czech Republic and mid-size selections sell between 90 CZK to 150 CZK apiece, making them a unique, but affordable holiday keepsake. I've also bought intricate wooden ornaments as well as handmade ceramics here. Since the market is smaller and less crowded than the one at Old Town Square, shopping with children seems less daunting. On Wednesday, November 25, the Christmas Market at Náměstí Republiky (Prague 1) opens. All three markets close on December 24, so be sure to catch them in time.

On Saturday, November 28, the remainder of the Prague Christmas markets open, including the Wenceslas Square market (Prague 1), which is just steps away from Old Town Square, and a new crafts market at Prague Castle (Prague 1) located at St George's Square and at the stable yard. Escape the crowds in Prague's Old Town Square and stroll through the boutique castle market while enjoying views of the city below.

In addition to traditional Christmas markets, some of Prague's farmer's markets will offer a special Advent season farmers' market selling specialty crafts, food products and beverages for the holiday season. The Farmers Market at Kulaťák located behind the roundabout in the Dejvice (Prague 6) neighborhood will be open during the four advent weekends (27-28.11, 4-5.12, 11-12.12, 18-19.12) on Fridays (12:00 – 18:00) and Saturdays (8:00-14:00). Come to sample Christmas sweets or to buy Advent wreaths, decorative greenery or your Christmas tree.

You can also witness first-hand the Christmas carp tradition. In a long-standing Czech custom, customers buy live carps from large tanks. Take your carp home in a plastic bag to keep alive (usually in a bathtub) until the morning of December 24 when it is butchered for Christmas dinner. You can also request for the fishmonger to butcher and fillet your carp on site. Even if carp isn't your idea of Christmas dinner, the tradition is worth seeing at least once.

The lively Jiřího z Poděbrad Farmers' Market, normally open Wednesday-Saturday, offers a special Advent and New Year's Market. Come to sample hot cider, buy fresh vegetables and enjoy craft workshops, including wreath making (5-6.12), candle making (12-13.12) and Christmas card making (19-20.12). The market will be open during the last three Advent weekends on both Saturdays and Sundays. It will also be open on December 23 in order to purchase last-minute supplies for your Christmas dinner table. Children and dogs are welcome at this family-style neighborhood market. The market will be open again on December 30 and New Year's Eve.

On the other side of the river in Prague's Smichov neighborhood, visit the Anděl Christmas Market located in the pedestrian zone near the Anděl metro for Christmas treats and to experience a laid-back market atmosphere. This Christmas market is open November 21-December 23 and a perfect open-air alternative to the crowded Nový Smíchov shopping mall nearby. On Fridays, there is a traditional farmer's market. Look for hand-shelled local walnuts as well as an assortment of jams and jellies for Christmas baking.

Venture beyond Prague to Karlstejn Castle (about 45 minutes by train) to see historical knights and experience Královského adventu (the King's Advent). Every Advent Sunday, the castle offers a different schedule of events such as music, parades and a medieval Christmas market. Visit on November 29 to witness the welcoming parade with Queen Eliska as well as the tree lightning ceremony. Come dressed as an angel for a chance to win the best angel's costume and to receive an early St. Nicholas gift. Return on December 6 for full-fledged St. Nicholas ceremonies, including performances by his sidekicks, the angel and the devil. On the closing Sunday of December 20, attend the Czech Christmas Mass led by Jakub Jan Ryba with a concert and a ceremonial opening of a keg of the King's beer in the Knight's Hall (17:00 – 19:00, Mass costs 170 CZK).

For a more humble version of a Czech Christmas, take a trip to the Wallachian Open Air Museum in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm. Visit the wooden village and adjoining museum to get an animated look at how Christmas used to be in the days of old. In each cottage, see a different activity demonstrated. Watch housewives cutting and decorating gingerbread cookies in the shapes of stars, comets, fish and bells. Continue your tour to see spinners, blacksmiths and woodcarvers at work and to hear folk Christmas songs. On December 5, children 15 and under can visit the village free-of-charge and learn more about the history of the St. Nicholas tradition in Czech villages.

In the South Bohemia town of Český Krumlov, the Advent season brings different festivities each weekend. This year for the first time ever, the town will hold Vánoce v Klášterech (Christmas in the monasteries), a series of Christmas programs which begin on November 28 in the town's newly revitalized monasteries. On Friday, December 4, watch a parade led by miners' guilds dressed in historic costumes as they bring St. Barbara’s light to the castle. From December 6, children can post Christmas letters to Ježíšek (Baby Jesus who brings Czech children their gifts) into a special post office box located at the Visitor's Center of the Monasteries. Musical performances by local choirs are another vital part of the Český Krumlov Advent season.

Outside the Czech Republic, the German cities of Dresden and Nuremberg both host popular Christmas markets that can be visited as either one-day trips or weekend overnights.

The Dresden Christmas Markets are held on Altmarket Square in the Old Town City Center from Thursday, November 26 through December 24. They are Germany's oldest Christmas markets with a history dating from 1434. The market's name Striezel comes from a traditional holiday sweet cake known today as “stollen.” Dresden is famous for handmade crafts such as wooden pyramids adorned with figures and candles, and the market has the largest wooden pyramid (14 meters tall) on display. Other handicrafts include nut crackers, lace and textile products, blown glass ornaments and Advent stars. Don't miss the local specialty, a chimney sweep figure made from dried prunes.

On the weekend of December 5-6, there will be a Stollen Festival with a parade and a giant stollen cake which will be cut in the town square. On Sunday, December 6, the shops in the city will be open for the only Sunday of Advent shopping in the southern region of Germany. Enjoy a bratwurst or curry wurst sausage while you sight see or shop.

Nuremberg is nicknamed “The Little Town from Wood and Cloth” because of the red and white stripped cloth which covers the town's wooden stands at its annual Christkindlesmarkt. Known for its sausages, gingerbread and mulled wine, the market is a great place to go for sampling German versions of Christmas market food as well as purchasing unique Christmas decorations.

Since 1999, the Nuremberg market has offered a special Children's Christmas Market with a merry-go-round, a mini-Ferris wheel and steam railway. A highlight of the market is seeing the Christkind, a female angel-like figure who gives children their Christmas presents in the Nuremberg historic tradition. The Christkind opens the festival on November 28, and she can been seen from Tuesday to Friday at the Children's Market at 14:30 or in the main Christmas Market at 15:00. She is a symbol of Christmas for Nuremberg citizens and her role in the Christmas market is to spread cheer and good tidings. The Children's Market also includes hands-on booths where children can bake gingerbread, make candles, write letters to St. Nicholas and even practice leather work.

For those who'd like to spend an Advent weekend further abroad, the cities of Salzburg & Vienna in Austria and Berlin, Germany also offer well-known Christmas markets.

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