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Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin — The village of Elkhart Lake, about an hour north of Milwaukee, is a dot of easy-going, welcoming community amid the vast pastures of dairy farms in eastern Wisconsin.

A handful of shops, galleries and restaurants are dispersed along Lincoln and East Rhine streets, the main junction of this resort town. The railroad brought the first leisure travelers to enjoy the health benefits of the spring-fed, 292-acre lake. Later, they came to watch open circuit races on public roads in and around the village, until Road America, a motorsports road course, opened outside town in the mid-1950s.

But every holiday season, thousands of people from all over the Midwest converge on this village to shop at the Old World Christmas Market and enjoy holiday activities in the Village Square and nearby resorts.

Held on the grounds of The Osthoff Resort, the Old World Christmas Market, now in its 22nd year, is modeled after a traditional Christkindlesmarkt in Germany. Held over 10 days in a heated tent — the length of a football field — the market’s boasts up to 95 vendors selling authentic crafts, including ornaments, snow globes and Nutcrackers from Germany, Russia, Turkey and Czech, to name a few.

USA Today last year named the Old World Christmas Market as the Best Holiday Market in the country in its annual Readers’ Choice awards, beating out markets in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The Old World Christmas Market is in the running again for the newspaper’s 2019 awards. The winners will be announced Dec. 13.

Elkhart Lake’s Old World Christmas Market may be smaller than those in Europe, but it’s no less inviting or captivating.

Step inside the big white tent, crowded with booths decorated with fresh greens and sparkling white lights, and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported across the pond. Traditional German folk music blares over the speakers. The aroma of grilling bratwurst and roasting almonds, a staple at German markets, waft through the air.

Rows of booths line each side of the tent, creating a mini-village. A “village green” claims the middle, outfitted with tables and chairs surrounding a sparkling Christmas tree. Booths sell traditional German fare, local and German beers, and hot gluhwein, a spiced wine. The menu, prepared by the chefs at The Osthoff Resort, includes sauerbraten, wiener schnitzel, spaetzle, red cabbage, goulash, potato pancakes with sour cream and applesauce, and kuchen.

Even on weekdays, shoppers swarm the aisles and crowd around booths, striking up conversations with familiar vendors. I’m struck by the large number of European craftsmen selling their wares. Many of them return year after year.

Among them is Gerhard Lippmann, a third-generation wood carver from the Rhon Mountains in central Germany. His display of nutcrackers with the faces of Santa, chefs and other professions, Nativity sets, figurines and incense burners draws shoppers like a magnet.

“This is a little smaller and a little more exclusive than markets in Germany. In Germany, there’s more eating and drinking,” he says, laughing.

The amiable Lippman, whose grandfather started the family carving business in 1899, has been a mainstay at the market for 21 years. It’s the only American holiday market he frequents; he tried a Chicago market once but said it was “too much.”

“It’s like a whole family here. It’s a warm atmosphere,” he says.

 Many of the European vendors, mostly from Germany, are mainstays. Immigrants from other countries are part of the mix as well, selling sweaters, lace and holiday ornaments. Vashek and Nadia Cinadr, originally from Czech, are among them.

The Cinadrs, who now live near Milwaukee, have been selling ornaments at the market since its first season. They’ve staked out a corner with an impressive display of colorful, decorative hand-blown glass ornaments from Czech and Slovak. Their assortment includes dozens of designs and they sell hundreds of ornaments each day.

“People know where to find us,” Vashek Cinadr said. “When the market opens at 10, we have our first customer at 10:02. We have to have physically fit customers to get from one end of the tent to the other that fast. They grab a basket and the fun begins.”

The Cinadrs travel to Czech and Slovak every year and work with several small companies to choose and design ornaments. New this year is an Italian-carved wood angel — about an inch tall — inside a glass ornament, decorated with golden stars and blue jewels.

“We have the largest selection of Czech and Slovak ornaments in the United States,’ Vashek Cinadr said.

The market, which began with just 30 vendors, was inspired by the travels of Lola Roeh, the general manager of The Osthoff Resort who lived in Germany for a short time and visited the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which dates back to the mid 16th century.

“I was really blessed to be able to go to the oldest, if one of the oldest Christmas markets, in Nuremberg,” says Roeh, who has been at the hotel 21 years, in 1998, had that year.. “It was such a great experience with all the scents of sausage cooking, spiced wine and all the great gifts. When we were thinking about what we could bring to Elkhart Lake and the Osthoff to celebrate the holidays, a market seemed like a wonderful opportunity to open the Christmas season.”

In a nod to “softer Americans,” the market is held indoors, in a heated tent, in contrast to the open-air markets in Germany and Europe. The event has expanded from 30 vendors to 85 to 95 each year. Most visitors come from Wisconsin and Illinois, but, increasingly, shoppers are coming from other states, including Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

The Osthoff Resort, which sits on the shores of Elkhart Lake, is the backdrop for many holiday activities in and around the village. The resort traces it roots to German entrepreneur Otto Osthoff who opened a hotel in the lake’s early days of tourism. The current resort, with 245 suites, restaurants, a spa and other amenities, was built in 1995, with a major expansion in 2005. 

To celebrate the holidays, The Osthoff Resort is decorated in traditional Christmas greens, lights and Christmas trees. More than 20 Christmas trees, each individually decorated, can be found throughout the hotel. The biggest is a 14-foot fall tree, outfitted with thousands of tiny white lights, in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the Elk Room, a gathering space that overlooks Elkhart Lake.

The resort and the village host a variety of Christmas activities, but, for many, the Old World Christmas Market is the focal point, bringing them back year after year.

Old World Christmas Market

The 10-day market is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 15.

Admission is $7 for adults. Children 14 and younger get in free when accompanied by an adult ticketholder.

Visit www.ChristmasMarketAtOsthoff.com or call (844) 566-4392 for more information

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