As we are getting ready for our Hungarian Christmas Market here in Phoenix, the event offers an excellent opportunity to talk about the tradition of the Christmas markets – in the world, as well as in Hungary and in Hungarian communities around the world.
We all know what a Christmas Market is – or do we, really? Is it a craft fair? Carnival? An excuse for social gathering? Well, it is all that – and a bit more.
In Europe, Christmas markets are street fairs held in the decorated town square during the four weeks of Advent, leading up to Christmas. It is an opportunity to shop for unique Christmas gifts and seasonal items, while sampling local traditional food and drinks. And, of course, after sunset, they also turn into Christmas light shows.
Local artisans bring out their handmade fare, food vendors offer lunch and dinner options, along with Christmas cookies, and other traditional treats. Along with shopping opportunities, Christmas Markets usually include entertainment, like visits from Santa, traditional singing and dancing, and occasional performances from local artists or schools.
Christmas markets bring cheer to towns and add a touch of light and color to the winter days, and they have done so for centuries.
The Origins of Christmas Markets
The first official Christmas Market was held in 1434 in Dresden, Germany, though the tradition most likely originated much earlier.
Its forerunners were Vienna’s December Markets, of which the first one recorded was held in 1298, held during Advent. Other early open-air December Markets recorded were held in Munich in 1310, Bautzen, in 1384, and Frankfurt, in 1393.
However, the Striezelmarkt in Dresden, first mentioned in 1434, is considered the first genuine Christmas market in the world. A one-day market held the Monday before Christmas, it was originally designed to sell meat after the traditional Advent fasting period.
Over time, the Striezelmarkt developed into a monumental event with over 200 stands, attracting over three million visitors from all over the world. Being his huge, it takes up most of the Dresden city center, and lasts through the Advent period until Christmas Eve.
And, while the Dresden Christmas market attracts so many visitors, most other cities of Europe – and many in the US – have their own, too.
Christmas Markets in Hungary
Although Hungary took up the tradition relatively recently, it emerged as one of the best Central European countries for show-stopping Christmas markets, especially in Budapest. The most famous one is held yearly in the historic Vörösmarty Square since 1998.
Gorgeous decorations, Christmas trees and Christmas villages offer a historic and romantic setting to the fair, held from late November through the end of December. This unique Christmas market attracts about 800 thousand visitors, displaying about 120 different craft vendors.
Other Christmas markets in Budapest include the one at the St Stephen’s Basilica, featuring a small ice rink, and a gorgeous Christmas tree in front of the famous church. A favorite of locals, less touristy than the others, is held in Óbuda, on the north side of the Buda side, featuring a larger ice skating rink, a romantic carousel, and lots of free concerts.
Though Budapest is home to the best-known Hungarian Christmas markets, you’ll find one in all major cities in the country. And, you’ll find Hungarian Christmas markets even outside of Hungary, in most Hungarian-speaking regions, and in cities around the world with a large Hungarian population.
What Makes Hungarian Christmas Markets Unique?
Besides food and drink, all the Christmas markets in Hungary feature plenty of modern artists and designers, offering a vast range of products.
Traditional things always featured in Hungarian Christmas markets include mézeskalács, the Hungarian version of gingerbread, made with honey, and decorated with fine lines of sugar glaze.
Hand-carved wooden toys and tools are also common, since there is a long tradition of wood carving among Hungarians, especially in Transylvania. Several markets feature workshops where you can see the objects being made.
Of course, traditional Hungarian pottery, needlework, and embroidery are present in all the markets throughout Hungary and Hungarian-speaking regions.
Our Hungarian Christmas Market in Phoenix
Here, in the desert of Arizona, our Hungarian Cultural Association of Phoenix holds the Hungarian Christmas Markets each beginning of December. The first one of these events was held in 2018, when everyone had a fabulous time. After a break in 2020, our Christmas Market returned in 2021 at a new location in the heart of Glendale. The Glendale Woman’s Club wooden architecture brings the spirit of European Christmas Markets to the Phoenix area and the smell of the amazing food and pastries will talk for themselves.
Vendors from near and far bring Hungarian-themed handmade crafts, including jewelry, ornaments, embroidery, Hungarian books among other things. Two workshops will be set up, one for leather crafting, the other for traditional Hungarian gingerbread decorating.
The performance of Napocska School will provide entertainment, and, as it is held close to December 5th, the Hungarian Mikulás-day, a visit from Mikulás or Santa will also be part of the celebration.
Of course, there isn’t going to be a shortage of food, so no one should go home hungry. There will be traditional Hungarian food like gulyás (goulash), stuffed cabbage, lángos (fried bread), kolbász (sausage), kürtős kalács (chimney cake), and home made chocolates, among other delicious home-made pastries.
Photo Credits: Edit Vasadi Photography