Silent night in a white Christmas market

Silent night in a white Christmas market

In medieval times, Germany faced short sunless days and long chilly winter nights. Without electricity or modern heating, this led to a gloomy mood and low socialisation. During Advent — the period between mid-November and Christmas — to rev things up, elders urged people to be ‘joyful and solemn,’ and ‘pious and yet playful.’

Bonfires were lit. The light, comfort, security enthused people to come out and mix. Dressed in warm clothes, they brought homemade treats and crafts to share or sell. Prayers were said to ‘lure’ back the sun, and the Yuletide spirit got going with joyful singing, food and drink!

Those customs of old are replicated in Wiehnachtsmarkt or White Nights Market — a buzzy gathering of loved ones in a warm atmospheric set up of brightly lit festive stalls and sumptuous treats to counter solitude and frigid temps.

Set before the Gothic backdrop of Cologne Cathedral and under the largest Christmas tree in all of the Rhine, is Weihnachtsmarkt Am Kölner Dom — the biggest and most popular Christmas market in Cologne.

At the tall twin-spired Cologne Cathedral, originally built to house the remains of the Three Magi, every year its square transforms into an enchanting wonderland — with a shining village-like fair, a gigantic fir tree splashed with decorations, brightly lit red-white striped stalls — all under a glittering canopy of dancing lights. The cheerful festivity with snow and the sound of the local choirs performing is made even more magical with a dazzling spread of tasty local delicacies — drinks and food, many with tongue-twisting, unusually long names.

From käsespätxle — tiny egg dumplings — cheese, kaiserschmarrn — shredded fluffy caramellised pancakes with rum-soaked raisins, tomutzen — bite-sized, egg-sugar-spice doughnut to a range of beverages including craft beer, they are all there — clothed in ‘rich traditions and even richer flavours’!

At the markets, there are beverages to ward off the wintry cold. The centuries-old gluhwein — the smouldering concoction is a hot favourite. This sweet, winter blend of red wine, spices and fruit goes by the moniker, ‘Christmas in a ceramic mug’!

To up the ante, there’s the complex-sounding, feuerzangenbowle-glühwein upgraded with a sugar cube soaked in rum and set on fire!

Fear not, there are less potent choices — egg-based drinks, non-alcoholic punches of cherry and other fruit.

Unbelievably in the freezing conditions, beers are everywhere! The local Kölsch, a Cologne original, served in a tall, slim, cylindrical glass is a big hit at the Wiehnachtsmarkt.

Wandering around the square’s colourful stalls celebrants are swept off their feet by the varied fragrances that float in the moist air. Fresh bread being baked. Meat on embers. Roasting chestnuts and almonds. Aromas that invoke the simple pleasures of childhood and Christmas. ‘You can smell it, hear it, see it, and for sure, taste it!’

Then there are the mouth-watering aromas of reibekuchen — crispy outside, moist inside potato-egg pancakes eaten with apple sauce or salmon-sour cream, and pommes — crispy fries doused in mayo.

Just as options on gluhwein, beers and soups greet people, there’s a dizzying variety of bratwurst — hearty minced meat sausages, mesmerisingly sizzling over beechwood fires or twirling on a schwenkrill. There are tiny, sizzling sausages that can be popped whole to thick rostbratwurst and bunches of other juicy sausages — eaten in rolls with mustard topping. As with many Christmas specialities, interesting traditions surround wurst. As per legend, there’s a finger-sized variety that medieval innkeepers could sell them through the tavern’s door keyhole after closing time!

In recent times young new chefs have come up with a curried version of the sausage, currywurst — sliced sausages, doused in a mildly spicy, sweet sauce.

Following their schnauzer nose, visitors move from one eatery to another and discover many a culinary treat: käsespätzle — creamy dumpling noodles topped with cheese, crispy fried onions, knoblauchbrot — garlic bread, flammkuchen — a delicate, savoury thin pizza-like flatbread with white cheese, creme fraiche, onions, bacon redolent with woodfire aromas!

A divine list of sugar highs tempts visitors at stalls: colourful candies, caramellised nuts, almond spritz and other cookies to stollen, a moist cake-like bread studded with spices, candied fruits to the all-time favourite, marzipan — a classic ground almond treat variously shaped like fruit, flowers. Although this year too, celebrations are low-key, it is one tradition that has joyfully evolved and mutated to the present times, and yet keeps in mind, the wise old dictum: ‘Man must remain dutiful, cheerful even in the worst of winters!’


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