by Susan Deefholts
As my husband and I hurry through Kitchener’s Victoria Park, I breathe in the crisp smell of winter. The bare branches of the trees and bushes are festooned with cheery lights that glow against the new-fallen snow.
We cross the footbridge with its string of festive lights that glimmer in the fast-flowing stream below. On the little island—which in the summer is host to picnics and musical afternoons—small stalls sell brightly-patterned paper lanterns, and candles in special plastic cups that will shield their flames from the winter winds.
The place is already thronged with people. There are children of all ages, parents, grandparents, and couples—all smiling and chattering as they hold their glowing candles in gloved hands and wait for the magic to begin.
Kitchener—which was once named Berlin—is steeped in German culture. The Christmas Market provides locals and visitors alike with a delightful alternative to the packed, sterile malls, with their piped in music and harried shoppers.
In Germany, this joyous custom dates back to the Middle Ages. Though there are different regional names for them—Weinachtsmarkt in the north, and Kristkindlmarkt in the south—they remain a beloved tradition in cities and towns across the country.
As we join the crowd today, bearing flickering candles of our own, I am glad of the layers I have worn—long johns, undershirt, sweater and down-filled jacket, my hands encased in cosy mittens. The cold is penetrating, but easily forgotten when I see the wide-eyed excitement of the children and the welcoming smiles and camaraderie of those around me.
And then the walk begins—a shimmering, candle-lit trek. We are led by Mary, Joseph and their stalwart donkey, through the snowy canopy of Victoria Park, and along the city streets, which have been closed off for the occasion. Music sheets are handed out and the singing begins, our breaths puffing in front of us with each note. Those who are particularly daring sing the German verses as well.
As we approach Kitchener City Hall, we can see that they have been waiting for us: a large stage dominates one end of the space, while all around, forming a convivial square, are stalls offering warm treats like potato pancakes and apple fritters. The smells waft towards us as we draw near.
The summertime fountain is now an ice rink where young children linger near the edges, watching their older siblings show off in the centre.
As the crowd files into the square, the opening ceremonies begin: songs, speeches and performances. And then the Christmas lights decorating the building, the Christmas tree and the square are turned on to cheers and exclamations of delight. The Christkindl Market has officially opened!
My husband and I love coming to the market—it’s a personal tradition that helps us get into the festive spirit each year. It’s no surprise to me that it has garnered such diverse awards as “Best New Festival 1999” by Festivals and Events Ontario and “Top 10 Events in Ontario,” in the course of its decade-long history.
Nor is the opening night the only time when visitors can sample the wares. There is Early Bird shopping on Wednesday. Thursday is the Candlelight Procession and opening ceremonies. The festivities continue all the way through the weekend, with a packed lineup of singers, dancers, and even bellringers.
And yet, the Thursday night is special—and so, while my husband lines up for wurst and sauerkraut, I make the most of my time, browsing through the fascinating stalls inside the vast foyer of the city hall, and defrosting a little in the process!
It’s a great way to buy truly unique gifts for everyone on my list. I select a hand-crafted necklace from one stall, while a nearby toddler watches in fascination as a toymaker demonstrates the intricate mechanisms of his wares—carved wooden figurines that evoke days long past. A few moments later, I know exactly how the toddler feels, as I find a table of Fabergé-style eggs, each gilt-encrusted orb concealing its own little wonder.
People linger to examine German CDs and DVDs, beeswax candles and hand-made soaps. The stall that sells Dirndls and Lederhosen draws the attention of those who really want to get into the spirit of things by donning the traditional Bavarian garments for special occasions.
Between the brisk winter walk and my ever-growing array of purchases, I soon find that I’ve built up quite an appetite.
With a regretful glance at the stairs leading to a second floor of stalls, I pull on my mittens and slip outside to join my husband as he lines up for some fresh, hot apple fritters and mulled, spiced glühwein—a special treat to warm even the most chilled of hearts with that special Christmas feeling.
An elderly woman and her grandson stand nearby, watching the festivities. As the line moves forward, I overhear her exclaiming in her strong accent, “I can’t believe it! It’s like I’m back in the town where I was a little girl—just around your age!”
Her expression is lively as she speaks, her smile wide. The little boy grins up at her, and for a moment they are perfectly alike in their bright-eyed wonder.
Above us, the Christmas tree sparkles with lights. Oh Tannenbaum indeed!
About the author:
This week Traveling Tales welcomes Susan Deefholts, a freelance travel writer who lives in Ontario, Canada..
Photos courtesy of Jan Pisarczyk:
1: One of the many entertainers during the Christkindl Market.
2: Storyteller Knecht Ruprecht captures the attention of his audience.
3: A youthful visitor points out a feature of the model railway village.
If You Go:
The Christkindl Market runs from Wednesday December 6th to Sunday December 10th, 2006. The Candlelight Procession and opening ceremonies are on Thursday night.
For more information, visit their website, at http://www.christkindlcanada.com