The Best Authentic Souvenirs to Buy From Germany's Christmas Markets

German Christmas markets are great places to stock up on traditional festive gifts
German Christmas markets are great places to stock up on traditional festive gifts | © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo
Lilly Graves

German traditional handicrafts are as ubiquitous as its many Christmas markets – the best place to buy authentic gifts in the form of wooden figurines, tree decorations, nutcrackers and sweet treats.

You’ll have plenty of opportunity to buy gifts for your loved ones on our festive Mini Trip in Bavaria, as we take you around the best Christmas markets in Munich and Nuremberg.

Wooden crafts and nativity scenes

Wooden nativity scenes make long-lasting Christmas gifts to treasure

One of the first Christmas markets took place in 1434 in Dresden, a city in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region. This vast forested area has a long legacy of local arts and crafts, and is the birthplace of many traditional Christmas gifts, particularly carved wooden items, the carving of which kept rural miners busy during the off season. Today, the Ore Mountains are less about mining and more about drawing tourists, but the handcrafted items survive, thanks to an abundance of renewable sources. These traditional items can be found at most German markets and include nativity scenes, figurines, toys, puzzles, angels, ornaments and even Easter decorations.

Nutcrackers

Nutcracker dolls originated in the late 17th century

Where do nutcracker dolls come from? These dignified, brightly painted wooden soldiers also originated in the Erzgebirge region, specifically in the late 17th century, though other devices to crack nuts were invented much before then. They were given as gifts and eventually became synonymous with Christmas. German folklore says that the dolls bring luck and goodwill to your family. They also represent power and strength, and are thought to guard your family against danger. The USA became familiar with them during World War II, when troops stationed in Germany began purchasing the figurines to send home as Christmas gifts. You’ll find nutcrackers at any German Christmas market, so go ahead and start that collection.

Paper stars and star-shaped lanterns

You can’t miss these star-shaped lanterns creating a warm glow in the winter dusk

Your eyes will be drawn to all sorts of intricate stars and star-shaped lanterns while walking through a German Christmas market, their warm glow creating a warm ambience in the winter dusk. There are many colours and styles to choose from, including the 26-point Moravian star (sometimes called a Herrnhut star), which originated in Germany in the 1830s as a craft project, intended to teach geometry to school students. They’re sold in paper versions for indoor use, plastic for outdoor use and on a string of lights as a long garland. Purchases tend to come flat and protected in plastic, making them easy to pack for your journey home.

Chocolate and cookies

The best-known festive treat is the gingerbread cookie

As soon as the Christmas markets across Germany open their shutters every November, people flock to the food stalls serving up savoury morsels to be gobbled on the spot. And then there are the sweet treats synonymous with Christmas in Germany, which you can wrap up and take home. The best-known is the gingerbread cookie, baked in various shapes and sizes, with a sugar glaze and soft interior. You can also stock up on festive cinnamon stars, chocolate-coated marshmallow treats called Schaumkussen and marzipan cookies made in a variety of cute shapes and patterns. At every Christmas market you’ll find colourful displays of traditional chocolates, allowing you to pick and choose your favourites.

Glühwein (mulled wine) mugs

Nothing calms the winter chill like a steaming cup of Glühwein

Nothing takes off the winter chill like a steaming cup of Glühwein(mulled wine), a traditional holiday drink and a staple at every German Christmas market. This concoction is spiced with cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise and citrus, and served warm or hot. The wine is typically red and varies from region to region, while non-alcoholic alternatives include hot chocolate and egg liqueur (like thicker, more potent eggnog). No matter which drink you choose, the purchase will likely include a small mug that you can take home. These mugs are often customised for each market or even for each year, and are sometimes hand-painted or made from mouth-blown European glass that can later be used as an ornament.

Christmas lanterns and tree decorations

Wooden Christmas tree decorations make great gifts or souvenirs

Electric tree lights didn’t appear until the early 20th century, so it was candles all the way. Many Germans have kept this tradition going, and today, candle burners are considered a more sustainable and elegant way to decorate a tree. Peruse the Christmas markets for a variety of unique candle lanterns and clip-on candle holders, designed to stay vertical and collect dripping wax. If you’re going to use them, space the candles properly, avoiding decorations and branches, place out of the way of drafts and always have a fire extinguisher or bucket of water on hand. You also need to make sure your tree stays hydrated. It all might sound like a lot of work, but it looks so magical, you may never go back to the electric version again.

Weihnachtspyramide (Christmas pyramids)

The Christmas pyramid is one of the most authentic festive souvenirs you’ll find in Germany

Remember the fragile decoration that Uncle Eddie knocks over in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)? It’s called a Christmas pyramid, and it’s one of the most authentic German festive souvenirs. The wooden Weihnachtspyramide originated in the Ore Mountains in the 16th century and has since become popular internationally. They come in several shapes and sizes, ranging up to several tiers in height. When the candles are lit, the tiers slowly begin to turn, creating a play of light and shadows. Depending on which market you go to, you will come across different variations: hanging pyramids, musical pyramids, outdoor pyramids and pyramids for other holidays. Either way, when you take home an authentic Weihnachtspyramide, you’ll be happy to put the pieces together every Christmas.

Räuchermann (incense smoking man)

The heady scent of this wooden souvenir will remind you of your German market experience every time you use it

These charming, incense-burning figurines were developed in the 19th century and are still crafted by hand using traditional woodturning techniques. It’s hard to choose between the variety of sizes and professions on offer, which may include chefs, lumberjacks, shepherds, bricklayers, gnomes and chimney sweeps. What they all have in common is a hollow mouth (and often a pipe), which releases a gentle stream of scented smoke, such as cinnamon, myrrh and gingerbread.

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This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Evelyn Smallwood.

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