As soon as the leaves fall from the trees and the thick jackets and coats have to be taken out of the wardrobe, not just the people of Cologne but also huge numbers of Christmas market fans in the surrounding region - and indeed neighbouring countries - look forward to the Winter Fairytale of “Heinzels Wintermärchen”. The first Christmas market in the Old Town - known at the time as the Nikolaimarkt, i.e. the St. Nicholas Market - opened in 1820. After several interruptions, a Christmas market has been held every year in the Old Town of Cologne since 1977. Since 2008, the Heinzelmännchen - the House Elves of Cologne - and their Christmas Market have brought additional enchantment to the Old Town. And in 2013, this acquired a further fairytale attraction in the shape of the grand ice skating rink.
But how exactly did Christmas markets develop in Germany in the first place?
In the Middle Ages, the Christkindlmarkt in Munich (starting in 1310) and the Striezelmarkt in Dresden (starting 1434) were already well-known winter markets, lasting several weeks and specialising in the sale of playthings, nuts, almonds and marzipan.
The 16th century saw the start of the “Dom” in Hamburg. Originally also a Christmas market, the Hamburger Dom later developed into one of the biggest funfairs in Germany, and still remains so today. Later, in the 17th century, the now world-famous Nürnberger Christkindlmarkt became established in Nuremberg.
The first Christmas market in Cologne – the Nicolaimarkt in the Old Town
The first Christmas market in Cologne opened its gates in the Old Town in 1820. It was officially known as the Nicolaimarkt because in the past, children received their gifts on St. Nicholas’ Day (6 December), not at Christmas, and the market offered everything to make children’s hearts beat faster: Sweets, confectionery, toys, and much more besides. Only ten years after its inauguration, Christmas without the Nicolaimarkt - also known colloquially as “De Hötte” - “The Huts” - had become more or less unthinkable for the people of Cologne. For one month each year, from 1 December to 1 January, it dominated life in the city. It was so popular that it also drew in stallholders and visitors from outside. As it became increasingly popular, the custom also developed of giving children gifts at Christmas.
1885 – The Christmas market on Alter Markt is prohibited
Then, by a decision of the city council of 19 February 1885, the Christmas market was banned. It had changed, becoming bigger and noisier and losing its original charm. Subsequently, several attempts were made to revive the Cologne Christmas market, e.g. with an event on Neumarkt in 1923 and one on Heumarkt in 1930. Later on, starting from 1970 and thanks largely to the efforts of Lord Mayor Theo Burauen, a Christmas market was held annually on Neumarkt, and from 1977 onwards also once again on Alter Markt.
The Cologne Christmas markets today
1995 saw the inauguration of the Christmas market around the Cathedral. This was followed at short intervals by the Märchenweihnachtsmarkt (Fairytale Christmas Market) on Rudolfplatz in 1997, the Mediaeval Christmas Market around the Chocolate Museum in 2000, the Schiffsweihnachtsmarkt (Floating Christmas Market) on the Rhine in 2001 and the Christmas Market in the Cologne Stadtgarten in 2006. The Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt (Harbour Christmas Market) around the Chocolate Museum opened in 2011, and the Christmas Avenue on Rudolfplatz in 2012.
Today, the five biggest Christmas markets in Cologne are the “Weihnachtmarkt am Kölner Dom”, the "Markt der Engel" on Neumarkt, the “Märchenweihnachtsmarkt” on Rudolfplatz, the “Hafen-Weihnachtsmarkt” around the Chocolate Museum, and the Winter Fairytale of “Heinzels Wintermärchen” on Heumarkt/Alter Markt.