The holiday season would not be complete without browsing for handcrafted gifts at Christmas markets around the world, especially those across central Europe. The best holiday gifts (especially the last-minute kind) can only be purchased at an old-fashioned street stall.
From chocolate to glühwein mugs, these traditional souvenirs are both authentic and special. They’re relatively inexpensive as far as gifts go, but truly capture that sense of place and timeless magic of the season. Here are the best European Christmas market souvenirs to gift now, and anytime.
The tradition of placing tree ornaments made out of glass originates in Germany in the town of Lauscha (located between Leipzig and Nuremberg). Typically made out of hand-blown glass, these became fashionable during the 16th century when Christoph Muller and Hans Greiner set up the country’s first glass studio. In the 1800s, these ornaments started appearing in the form of fruits and nuts, coated with a silvery appearance. If you manage to pick up one in the shape of a pickle, it denotes good luck. A great way to snag a souvenir like this is to take a Christmas Market River Cruise by Tauck. (Around $7 per ornament.)
Gingerbread is popular and authentic souvenir to bring back from central European Christmas markets. The traditional cookies come in different shapes, although the most common are in the form of hearts. Many are far from plain, and feature phrases like Frohe Weinachten (Merry Christmas in German) written on them in frosting. Nuremberg, Germany, is known as “the gingerbread capital of the world” where the local round Lebkuchen is often baked from a proprietary mix featuring cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, anise, and ginger. (Around $7 per small cookie.)
While these handsome mugs were originally crafted out of gold and silver during the early 1400s, they are mostly made out of ceramic now, and perfect for holding the traditional Christmas mulled wine made with spices and orange peel. Some mugs come in the shape of a Christmas boot, which holds an extra few ounces of spirit. (Around $10 per mug.)
Don’t dismiss this souvenir--Europeans take the scenes to a different level. Nativity scene souvenirs come in various shapes including the popular ornament, snow globes, and olive wood carvings. While St. Francis is credited with staging the very first nativity scene in Italy, these types of souvenirs are now popular in the central markets of Germany, especially at Kripperlmarkt, the country's largest nativity market. A good way to snag one of these is to follow a curated itinerary, such as the Christmas Markets of Central Europe by Intrepid. (Around $8 per snow globe or ornament; the wood carvings start at $25.)
This German yeasted fruit bread that dates back to the Middle Ages is still popular, and is typically accompanied by coffee. It has many recipe variations, but is often made from flour, butter, as well as marzipan with nuts, raisins, and some fruit topped with icing or sugar. The shape is traditionally oblong and it's dense, to emulate a swaddling baby. During the Advent season, it is called Weihnachtsstollen, and it was not made with butter until 1491 when Pope Innocent VIII lifted the butter ban. (Around $22 per loaf.)
Nutcracker dolls originated in Germany in the late 17th century in the Ore Mountain region. Often, these beautifully painted dolls were given as gifts, and became associated with Christmas. Some soldiers brought home these gifts during the 1940s during the war as a souvenir for their loved ones. You can find one in almost any European Christmas market, and they start from $20 up, depending on their level of detail.
Smokers from the Erzgebirge region of Germany are popular souvenirs at holiday markets since many families light incense on January 6th, known as Epiphany, which is the 12th and final day of celebration on the heels of Christmas. It is considered the day when the Magi visited the baby Jesus. Today, the incense burners come in various shapes, including Santa Claus and colorful carved small working men, often are referred to as Rauchermen (which include shepherds, sweepers, farmers and more). Some of the smokers are quite intricate, and retail for $42 or more.