There is nothing quite like the smell of a Christmas market. Step anywhere near Chicago’s Christkindlmarket and you’ll pick up the intoxicating scents of grilled meats, roasting nuts, glühwein, sizzling potato pancakes and incense. It’s enough to get even the biggest Scrooge into the holiday spirit.
Chicago’s Christkindlmarket is a mini version of the Nuremberg Christkindlmarket in Germany that is widely recognized as the biggest and best Christmas market in the world. Nuremberg’s Christmas market dates to at least 1628, or about 40 years before Potawatomi guides first took the French trader Nicolas Perrot to the site of present-day Chicago.
I’ve been going to Chicago’s Christkindlmarket since the year after it started in 1996 during my on and off stints living in the city and the place never fails to get me into the Christmas spirit. Santa is available for visits (on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Christmas Eve day), there are dozens of stalls selling everything from Christmas ornaments to cuckoo clocks, and there’s an indoor/outdoor beer garden where you can indulge in hot chocolate, glühwein served in a souvenir boot, or some Spaten lager or doppelbock.
But it is still essentially a German market and most of the major sponsors are German companies. I met Nicole Lorenz, a German woman who runs the Bavarian Workshop stand and also hires local people to help run some of the German stalls in the market. She told me that most of the German vendors come from Saxony, in eastern Germany.
The market is open until Christmas Eve but it takes the vendors a couple days to take down their operations, so they all spend Christmas away from their loved ones. Lorenz rents an apartment in Chicago each year for the five weeks the market is open and hasn’t been able to spend Christmas at home in the 11 years she’s worked at the Christkindlmarket. But she wasn’t complaining – she likes the market and it’s usually well worth the effort and disruption to her life in Germany.
We timed our visit to the market this year so we could take the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) holiday train back to our home in Evanston. For the last 15 years, CTA has been running the holiday train on a rotating schedule across all the different lines in the month prior to Christmas day. (See the schedule here.) The train exterior is decorated with multicolored lights and there’s a ginormous Santa Claus in a flatbed sleigh filled with presents right in the middle part of the train.
We stepped into the car and were greeted by CTA elves offering candy canes and Christmas music. The car interiors are filled with Christmas decorations and even the seats themselves are upholstered with images of Santa lugging presents and other holiday scenes. In typical CTA fashion, our train arrived late and within a few stops was jam-packed, as it always is near the five o’clock bewitching hour. But the festive vibe kept all the commuters in relatively good spirits, even if many of them barely averted their eyes from their phones and other mobile devices.
Things got a little hairy though when we got off at the Howard stop. The platform is quite narrow right by where Santa’s sleigh was parked and hordes of us were all trying to snap his photo before the train pulled away. As people jockeyed for space, I decided that being tossed onto the platform wouldn’t be the most festive way to end an otherwise great day so I backed off.
The holiday trains generally run from 1-8 on weekends and 3-7 weeknights. I highly recommend you avoid rush hour, because it’s easier to stay in the holiday spirit when you have some breathing room.
[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara, Christkindlmarket]