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A Brief History of Christmas Markets
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Now a global phenomenon, the holiday tradition traces its roots to medieval Europe

Elizabeth Djinis

History Correspondent - Smithsonian magazine

For many, Christmas markets evoke nostalgia, with their glowing lights, sugary smells and joyful sounds reminding visitors of yuletides past. But while the tradition of street vendors hawking their wares around the holidays dates back hundreds of years, the Christmas market as it’s known today is a surprisingly modern creation.

“The irony is that [the market] poses as this ancient, ancient tradition, and that’s what people think about,” says Joseph Perry, a historian at Georgia State University. “But in fact, it’s a lot more recent.”

Held annually in dozens of cities around the world, from Zagreb, Croatia, to Dresden, Germany, to Shanghai, China, to Chicago, Illinois, Christmas markets typically feature open-air stalls selling gifts, seasonal treats and hot beverages. Ornate light displays, decorations and festive performances often accompany these offerings.

Nostalgia for a past that doesn’t exist—one of “collective holiday harmony,” writes Perry in Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History—is central to the appeal of Christmas markets. Yet the tradition is rooted in a mercantile function, underpinned by 19th-century cultures of commerce and consumption that “deeply marked these supposedly timeless markets,” according to Perry.

The origins of Christmas markets

A Brief History of Christmas Markets


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