Like many Minnesotans, my heritage looks like someone threw darts at a map of Europe. More than 80% of our state’s population has roots in Europe, according to the MN Demographic Center. Yes, I’m from a family that eats lefse and lutefisk on Christmas Eve (plus bolbaki, a strange Slovak poppy dessert that has baffled me my entire life). But my knowledge of German, the native language of the majority of my ancestors, begins and ends with “Guten morgen.”
This weekend, I got in touch with my pedigree in the most charming way possible: at a Christkindlmarkt, an open-air holiday market that has been popular in German-speaking areas of Europe since the Middle Ages. Vendors line the town square in pine-decorated booths to sell food, mulled wine, and handmade gifts. I only had to travel as far as St. Paul’s Union Depot to get a taste of this Christmas tradition. Here’s a sampling of what I found:
PHOTOS BY ANNE Kopas/MINNESOTA MONTHLY
Each vendor booth at a traditional Christkindlmarkt is watched over by a Moravian star, typically lit at night. The first of these stars were used in geometry lessons in the 1830s at the Moravian Boys’ School in Germany. The Moravian church adopted them as symbols of advent, and today the tradition continues to decorate churches and markets.
What’s a German market without schnitzel? I’d heard the name, but didn’t know what it was until now: strips of tenderized meat (typically pork) that are breaded and fried, then drizzled in a savory mushroom sauce. These were served alongside a potato pancake topped with warm applesauce (and claimed with a tiny German flag, in this case).
Handmade knit or felt mittens are a popular gift item at Christmas markets. A Ukrainian folk tale tells of a child who asks for white knit mittens from his grandmother, only to lose one in the snow. The mitten quickly becomes a home for several animals ranging from a mouse to a bear—though I’m not sure this market sold any bear-capacity mittens.
Witch balls of hollow glass were simply used as fishing floats until the 17th century, when English villagers would tie them to suspected witches and throw them in the river. If the woman and ball floated, the theory went, the unfortunate woman was to be hung as a witch. They doubled as baubles to protect the home from evil spirits. Today, they’re sold as Christmas tree ornaments like the ones below.