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Chicago’s Christkindlmarket a holiday tradition that's worth a trip

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

Chicago’s Christkindlmarket proves you don’t need the backdrop of a fairy-tale setting to embrace the holiday fun of a traditional European Christmas market.

Forget the skyscrapers surrounding Daley Plaza. Spend any time in the makeshift village of wooden stalls brimming with handcrafted gifts — near the famous untitled Picasso sculpture — and you’ll think you’re in Bavaria. Grab a decorative mug of glüehwein (mulled wine), breathe in the aroma of bratwurst and gingerbread and see if you don’t succumb to the merriment.

Inspired by the classic Christkindlesmrkt in Nuremberg, Germany, Chicago’s market is among the largest and oldest in the United States and this year marks its 25th anniversary (last year’s was an online-only event because of the pandemic).

For many Chicagoans (and Midwesterners alike), the Christkindlmarket is as much a holiday tradition in the Windy City as window displays along State Street, the Christmas tree at Millennium Park (it used to be at Daley Plaza but was relocated because of the market’s growth), and twinkling lights along Michigan Avenue.

Chicago’s Christkindlmarket is one of the oldest and largest of its kind in the United States

It’s one of the city’s biggest yuletide attractions and well-worth a visit if you’re in Chicago around the holidays. The glüehwein mugs, by the way, are a big thing; designs change every year. Commemorating the market’s 25th anniversary, this year’s mug is a dark emerald green flute shape with detailed scenes of Christkindlmarket and the Chicago skyline. The boot-shaped mugs have been the most popular and have sparked debate on which versions are the best.

Musical performance and giveaways add to the festivities. Heating tents offer warmth from the chilly air. You can even reserve spots for small groups inside the Timber Haus for food and drinks.

Spread out over four weeks or more, Christkindlmarket draws about 1 million to 1.5 million visitors each year. Don’t be surprised to find long lines snaking from the entrance, pass the Nativity scene on North Dearborn Street and around the block. Organizers monitor the flow of crowds during busy weekends.

Browsing among the wooden stalls, I was immediately struck by the high percentage of German vendors, who sell everything from Cuckoo clocks to Nutcrackers to ornaments, and table laces. Authentic German food — bratwursts and sausages, potato pancakes, pierogies, strudel and other pastries — dominate the food offerings, but you’ll find local purveyors. Melted raclette on a baguette from a Wisconsin vendor was hard to resist. A woman walking away from the stall, with a baguette in hand, said the combination was “life changing.”

About 60% of the market’s 55 vendors are from Germany; others come from Poland, Ecuador, Peru, Ireland and American states.

Among the German stalwarts  is Frieder Frotscher, from Joessnitz, Germany. He runs the Traditional German Food stall, offering up bratwurst with sauerkraut, German Leberkaese, curry sausage, and homemade soups and chocolate-covered fruit. Frotscher, who also sells beer steins and imported Marzipan products, has been a staple at the market since its inaugural year.

What brings Frotscher back year after year is the authenticity of the market, the mix of German, international and domestic sellers and the loyalty of returning customers. The market has become a tradition for many in Chicago, not only for shopping but hanging out with friends after work for mulled wine or beer.

 “The market looks and operates like a traditional Christmas market,” says Frotscher, who’s also pleased that visitors appreciate his efforts to come from Germany each year with authentic food and gifts.

On the first afternoon of my visit, I found long lines outside Frank’s Ornament House and the Sweet Castle; the latter overflows with chocolates, cookies and other treats from Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Inside Frank’s, one of the largest walk-in stalls at the market, thousands of glass-blown ornaments line the walls and fill bins below. The variety, from the traditional — snowmen and bells to stars and reindeer — to animals — bears, cats and dogs — to new arrivals — a pair of white turtle doves to a Caribbean-bound airplane — is overwhelming.

 Frank’s has been a staple at the market as well. His ornaments are individually mouth-blown and hand-painted in Germany or Poland. Over the years, thousands of different types of ornaments have been, and continue to be created

Chicago’s holiday market began on the other side of the Chicago River — in Pioneer Park — the creation of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, at a time when the traditional European holiday markets were just beginning to gain traction in the United States. The goal was to promote trade between the United States and Germany.

Even with just a dozen vendors and a two-week run, the market was an instant success. There were no walk-in shops at that time so visitors spent all their time outdoors. Then-Mayor Richard Daley invited the organizers to relocate the market to Daley Plaza the following year and that’s where it’s been held ever since. The market has been so successful that satellite locales have operated over the years; this year’s is in Wrigleyville.

I returned to the market more than once during my Chicago visit,  lured, in part, by the simplicity of the holiday fun and the hunt for special ornaments as gifts. Okay, and maybe another mug of mulled wine in the frosty outdoors. The Chicago Christkindlmarket was as festive and inviting as those I’ve visited in Europe.

Chicago Christkindlmarket

Through Friday

Daley Plaza

50 W. Washington St.

11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun-Thurs,  11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Fri-Sat