On the third day of Advent, I smelled something unusual at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Instead of a big whiff of fish or fried food, the odor that typically punches my nose, I inhaled the heady perfume of the winter holidays. The scent: eau de mulled wine, roasted nuts and bratwurst.
The seasonal bouquet permeates the air of the Christmas Villages in Baltimore and Philadelphia, a pair of German-inflected colonies featuring crafts, local and Deutschland foods, toe-warming beverages and decorative lights as bright as a diamond tiara. The special events, which run through Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, respectively, transport the glee — and the glühwein — of the German Christmas markets to the East Coast.
“It’s the spirit of the traditional Christkindlesmarkt,” said founder Thomas Bauer, a native of Nuremberg, which holds one of the largest and most celebrated markets in Germany.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Christkind the Christmas Angel even flew in from Nuremberg to officiate over the festivities, which are in their sixth year for Philadelphia and the first for Baltimore. Bauer chose the City of Brotherly Love as his original site because of the region’s German heritage and significant Amish population. Baltimore was more of a pragmatic choice: The Inner Harbor turns fallow during the colder months and could really use a holiday cheering squad.
Both villages center on a compact collection of twee timber huts the color of gingerbread, with white lights icing the edges. In Philadelphia, the elfin structures occupied by more than 60 retailers encircle the 38-foot-tall Christmas tree in Love Park. The Baltimore venue sits on the lip of the harbor, within earshot of the trumpet blare of the ferry. A few of the 42 vendors brave the outdoors, including a purveyor of South American woolens, a mulled wine stand and a Nepalese shop of felt objects. But most are tucked inside a big-top tent illuminated by a Milky Way of lights.
To wrap my mittens around the German traditions, I started my journey in Philadelphia’s wondrous land of Käthe Wohlfahrt, a Rothenburg-based company founded by a post-World War II toy peddler. It specializes in handcrafted holiday pieces steeped in centuries-old practices. Every item is gift-wrapped in a story.
Gather ‘round, for example, for the tale of the Christmas pyramids.
An employee explained that ore miners in the Erzgebirge, or Ore Mountains, region of southeastern Germany couldn’t afford Christmas trees. So as a cheaper alternative, they collected fallen boughs, then assembled the branches into tiers, adding layers each year and placing candles at the tips. The forest-floor constructions evolved over time into condo-style carved wooden carousels depicting such dollhouse scenes as singing and instrument-playing angels, barreling skiers and sledders, and other apple-cheeked slices of village life. Propellers at the top, fueled by the heat of candles at the base of the pyramid, slowly rotate the displays.
Across the aisle, the Schwibbogen’s bio could melt a piece of coal. The candlelit wooden arches, which provide a stage for lively dioramas (a pretzel bakery, or a woodworking shop), represent the lanterns that the miners would hang over the mine entrance as each worker safely exited. The townfolk would start their Christmas Eve celebrations only once they’d received a thumbs up of glowing orbs. Today, Schwibbogens appear on window sills and mantels, a flickering beacon of home and family.
“Germans go, ‘Mmm, I remember that from my childhood,’” said Randee Stevens, a sales associate who stood amid a sea of grim-faced nutcrackers and O-mouthed smokers.
At the Baltimore outpost, a vibrant mural of the medieval town of Rothenburg enlivens the back wall. On a nearby Christmas tree, the staff hides a pickle ornament, following a puckish holiday custom: The first child to discover the green veggie wins a prize. (The market doesn’t fully uphold the tradition: If you find the ornament, you don’t earn a free gift.) I sussed out the pickle through reconnaissance: I overheard Bauer boast about discovering it. It was behind a roly-poly Santa.
“This is the real stuff,” said Hans Mayer, a Cologne-born Baltimore resident whose grandchildren search for the pickle in his tree.
For straight-off-Lufthansa authenticity, I stopped by Karl Uebel’s nut stand. For the past five years, the Schweinfurter has moved his family of five to Philadelphia for the Christmas season, where they sell such Old World specialties such as roasted almonds sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. Per tradition, he wraps the snacks in paper cones as colorful as party hats. At a separate counter, he presents such classic treats as gingerbread, three kinds of stollen (cranberry is the Yankeefied version) and pfeffernüsse, which he said are “very important.” Based on the gravity of his tone, I imagined Santa shunning homes that don’t stock the spiced cookies.
“You can’t bring the whole tradition to the States; it’s not possible,” Uebel said. “But you can bring just a little bit.”
Though the villages wave a German flag, some vendors put their own citizenship stamp on the pennant.
Artisan Exchange sells such standards as knackwurst and a German-style smoked salami perfectly shaped for a long-toed stocking. But the farmers-and-foodie collective from West Chester, Pa., sneaks into Italy with a pizza topped with mozzarella, sauerkraut and smoked knackwurst. Nearby, the woman pouring mulled wine into a Christmas Village collector’s mug said that she uses a local Chadds Ford red spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and allspice — a “zingy apple pie” flavor, she added. (In Baltimore, you can buy premixed Augsburger glühwein in white or red, by the mug or bottle.)
Dennis Krone bakes his fruit-filled strudels in an improvised kitchen at Helmut’s Original Austrian Style Strudel. The apple version, if you may recall, appears in the “Sound of Music”; it’s rhymed with “schnitzel with noodles” in the song “My Favorite Things.” But I couldn’t imagine the von Trapp children harmonizing over the spinach-and-cheese version.
For his Baltimore stand, Allen Blankenship, of Vince’s Tasty Creations, invented the new national cuisine of Germtimore by inserting a crab cake into a pretzel roll. He also sells bratapfel but tailored the baked apple dish (slices, not whole fruit) to mobile American diners. The whoopie pie, however, is his top seller. He’s working the Amish connection, or the cupcake backlash.
For the bulk of their gifts and crafts, the villages spin the globe. Throw a sausage missile in the air and you could hit Janette’s Designs (in both locations), which stocks wool and alpaca sweaters, hats, mittens and ponchos from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Or you might bowl over a nesting doll from Gifts From Afar (ditto), whose Russian souvenirs appeal to Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters as well as to Cold War-era families (Russian leaders on one side of the room, U.S. presidents on the other).
Silk Road Traders, in Philly, specializes in exotica from that legendary trade route. Owner Mark Metzelaar transformed his cube into an Eastern trading post, with Turkish rugs covering the floor and gem-colored lanterns filling the air space. The under-the-tree options included cotton Turkish towels (very absorbent and not prone to mildewing, Metzelaar claimed), scented soaps and hand-painted pottery by women from Kutahya in western Turkey.
“This is my Christmas gift from my husband,” exclaimed a woman as she handed Metzelaar a votive lantern.
For a gift that will prompt conversation, or a foreign policy debate, I suggest the mother-of-pearl inlaid wood boxes from Syria. The few on display predate the country’s civil war, and new orders are on hold. “Our supplier is busy trying to survive,” Metzelaar said solemnly.
As the clock ticked toward closing time, I raced through “Estonia” for red-capped trolls and patterned socks, and “Nepal” for felt jewelry and figurines. I paused at a bag of giant pretzels resting on a counter, returning to “Germany” before the staff locked the doors of the tent.
The villages shuttered at 7 p.m., but the holiday wasn’t ready to call it a night. Standing near the darkened harbor, I could still smell Christmas in the air.