Local Yokel on a Day Trip: A Countryside German Christmas Market
Good Evening! The Second Sunday of Advent has been upon us, and it’s not christmassling here in the normally infectiously festive House of Golightly. Will a German Christmas Market create instant seasonal cheer?
All we have in terms of Christmas decoration are some rather dim lights on our little cypress outside, and the Herrnhuter Stern is in the early stages of assembly and lacking a hook to fix it onto the ceiling, as our light-fixing arrangements have changed yet again. I have yet to find the Stormtrooper paper cut star I started last year. And the Christmas baking I planned last Sunday turned into apple crumble – which was nice but not really the festive baked article I initially had in mind. So, to fix that lack of festive cheer, I suggested we visit a German Christmas Market that last dreary rainy Sunday.
Proto-husband, always one to get out and about and explore the local scene, readily agreed. We were adamant not to go anywhere near Berlin where the shops made a special Sunday Opening and stampedes would be guaranteed in the bigger shopping spots.
So, a little searching on my computer later, we decided on a countryside Christmas Fair in the grounds of a small estate near us: Liebenberg.
And where on Earth is that?
Schloss und Gut Liebenberg are less than 50km from Berlin but way out in the sticks, between the villages of Loewenberger Land and Liebenwalde in the Oberhavel District of Brandenburg. With the more bucolic Ostpriegnitz-Ruppin to the West and the forested Barnim District to the East, it is usually overlooked by tourists and beautifully sleepy. With a bit of planning, you can get there in in hour from Berlin Central Station by taking a Limited Express Train to Loewenberger Land, then a local bus. Or you can drive, as soon as you’ve passed the Berliner Ring it’s all easy open countryside.
Schloss und Gut Liebenberg – Never heard of it
The Estate has existed since the 1600’s, and with Germany’s checkered history of over 200 small states, it feels like owners and guardians of the estate changed just as much. The land was purchased by a nobleman from the Lower Rhine region in 1652 and a first mansion built. The famous Joseph Peter Lenne designed the gardens which can be admired today.
A few owners and a new-built mansion later, the estate survived the Second World War intact by becoming a National Socialist Estate, with the owner and many villagers joining the National Socialist Party. As the estate was on then Eastern German territory, it was nationalised and turned into a school for the socialist party as well as a summer home for senior party officials.
I have no idea how unscathed it survived the Socialist period, but the successor of the Socialist Party got rid of it in 1990 when it was supposedly in a poor state and remained so for ten years, in which it was repeatedly put up for sale. The Deutsche Kreditbank bought the estate in the early 2000s and turned it into conference venue, hotel and managed farm and forest. Which is very nice of them because a fair number of stately ruins crumble along here in Brandenburg and fall into disrepair. A small community lives and works the farm and forest and maintains the historic buildings.
They hold an annual Christmas Market, which runs the four advent weekends before Christmas, and seeing that it really seemed out int he sticks, and the weather was rainy and generally disgusting, we set out to enjoy a glass of mulled wine and a waffle or two in countryside isolation.
What is this German Christmas Market like?
Well. First impressions weren’t rosy. The weather was not great, moody with rain which started promptly once we arrived in this massive mud bath-cum-parking place. At least helpers were clued up, and there was not much drama or fighting for parking spaces. But it was not exactly the sweet rural trip we had in mind. I think word got around that this is quite a popular one.
What also pissed me off a bit is that they charged an entry fee. Okay, only 3 EURO. But this estate is owned by a bank, it was not really advertised until we were faced with a queue and cashiers at the entrance, and I didn’t see any indication that the fees would go to charity as is often the case with these fee-paying Christmas fairs. So, our pockets a bit lighter, we went to explore
This fair prides itself as a “true spirit of Christmas” kind of venture. Rightly, the Liebenberg Estate operates as a “sustainable” estate, and boasts a little country manor, a museum, a village church, and various barns. Even this rainy day, you could barely move for people moving with you, or against you. The chalets are pretty, and most of the decoration is natural trees (probably hacked off somewhere), bunches of old bundled up books, all strung together by fairy lights.
And as it got dark, it became a bit more atmospheric but no less crowded. But somehow the magic failed to appear. Had it been left at the cashiers hut, or was the problem that we were entirely sober (driving and all)?
I so wanted to love this! My first Christmas fair of the year, a glass of mulled wine, and some good gingerbread was all I wanted… and a little retail therapy, but not a Shopping Mall style stampede. By now, I had wished I had stayed at home, burned a few incense cones and made the mulled wine myself. If the perfect place to shop for small unique gifts ever exists, this wasn’t it.
So, we wandered back outside, our coats pulled a bit tighter, into the church, which had the air of a fast food restaurant with lots of people eating in there and seeking shelter form the rain. I just kept thinking how many spikes of my Herrnhuter Stern I would have managed to bolt together had I stayed at home.
It’s amazing what you can do with a few hundred metres of fairy lights and some Christmas stars. Especially the Christmas stars. I love them so much, and it is nice to see them popping up north of Leipzig now.
Any noteworthy local products?
Another reason why I love Christmas markets, aside from the extra illuminance and seasonal cheer, is the local food and artisan products that are sometimes sold here. We can all buy Indian paper stars online, and apart from looking nice, they are so ubiquitous at Christmas time, they are not really anything new to Christmas fairs.
Of you visit any Christmas market south of Leipzig and east of Hanover, you will find stalls filled to the brim with beautiful and handmade wooden ornaments from Saxony, accompanied by Dresdens finest fruit loaf and gingerbread. Often you will find a shop selling glass ornaments from Lauscha in Thuringia in the craziest colours and styles. Seriously, so kitsch they are good. I bought a pearlescent glass Siamese cat last year and I will sure go on the lookout for a suitable ornament this year, because they are just so beautiful crazy! And on another small local fair I picked up three boxes of vintage glass baubles for stamp money.
You won’t really find this here. Yes, there are local mustard companies, jam companies, an ostrich meat stall… A lot of it was fairly generic, like you find on most other Christmas fairs. A poll among Germans recently found that our Christmas fair essentials are mulled wine, sugared almonds and hot alcoholic beverages, and you shall find these here in abundance. What we liked was the large bunch of estate chickens who, the farm shop seller assured us, are free range and they lay their eggs into lovingly made nests, so we bought a small box of very happy very expensive eggs – our version of a special pre-Christmas treat if you like as we only buy eggs from free range chickens, ideally where we can see the chickens and convince ourselves of their welfare.
In terms of local artisanry, there are a few beautiful things on sale here. However… if you look for something useful or just downright nutty and crazy, good luck. Most goods for sale are of a reasonable quality, and I would say 50% are small business artisan goods. They are not exactly Grayson Perry, but there appear to be widespread fears that some of the unique designs could be stolen and therefore photographs were not encouraged. However, instead of just putting a visible note there saying “no photo”, which you often find in Berlin markets, the average Brandenburger enjoys shouting at you for taking a photograph from a reasonable distance far too much.
There were a couple stalls with Ore Mountain wooden ornaments, but if you are into real traditional arts and crafts you would find a much better choice (and better prices) in Leipzig or Dresden. At least our Polish neighbour brought a haul of Boleslawiec pottery with them. It may not be the most cutting-edge design either, I love the rustic charm and extreme durability of these pieces. I also have a kitchen full of thrifted crockery and no longer an excuse to stash it away in boxes so a pass on this one. But for traditional Central/Eastern European pottery, I rate Boleslawiec highly and prefer it over the local clay blue pottery.
Some beeswax and honey, a firm favourite round these neck of the woods. I love the smell of a beeswax candle, and I love bees. So is it okay to buy these? I’m never sure with bee products.
And glass fusing appears to be THE pastime on those dark Brandenburg nights when the easterly wind blows. And look at these cute angels! They will look great on your window, or a tree.
Last not least, you got your furs. Now, I am not a die-hard vegan, and I guess if nothing is shot round here, we have forests full of fox, wild boar and deer – perhaps – but how redundant is an owl made from fur? And are there still people who’ll put a furry tail on their hats? Perhaps I haven’t penetrated the villages around the Berliner Ring much? Please, friends help me? Is there a place in this day and age in Central Europe with its Central Heating and ass-warming car seats where you need to wrap yourself into a dead animal???
After this, I vowed to buy nothing but weakened at the sight of a Star Trek Arrowhead-shaped kilt pin lovingly made by an older gentleman from local pear wood. I would love to show it to you, but proto-husband actually paid and squirrelled it away, only to resurface on Christmas Eve…
And so, this was my first Christmas Market this year! I still have not picked up my years supply of Saxonian gingerbread, so I think I need to nip to the very large Christmas Fair on Alexanderplatz tomorrow on my way tot he dentist and stock up ,and while I am there, I will try to catch some super special Thuringian glass ornaments! Once Eastern German, always Eastern German, and Eastern German Christmas treats really are the best, so I try to share some more before Christmas!
If you are in the area, you might also wish to check out the Christmas Fair in Rheinsberg, which is usually on one weekend before Christmas (this years was 7.-9. December). Rheinsberg is beautiful and quite empty in winter (the trains from Berlin only run until mid-November) so I am curious, and perhaps, I will be able to go there! I’ll report back! In the meantime, are there any Christmas Fairs in and around Berlin (or Germany) that you love, and why?
General Christmassling Appraisal
Gift Shopping: ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆
Life Performances/Music: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆
Commerce Factor: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Fun Factor: ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆
Liebenberg does even coming close to my favourite Christmas Markets, most of which are – surprise, surprise – in Germany. Given my experience of the last few years, these are my favourites, and don’t be surprised if the most famous ones aren’t in it, because famous often means crowded and expensive, too.
1. Dresden: Just for overall goodness. It keeps a perfect balance between small artisan and traditional products and all-you can drink Gluhwein vats, and is so huge, you need to toss a load of busloads at it to make it feel crowded. Also, Pulsnitzer Lebkuchen and true Ore Mountain wooden Christmas accessories everywhere – definitely the largest choice of traditional Eastern German Quality stuff. Made of numerous smaller markets, t sneaks from the river Elbe to the train station past the city palace, town hall, Frauenkirche, and Kreuzkirche. Usually runs from the end of November until 23. December. A small part (“Raunaechte”) will usually stay open until 30 December.
2. Konstanz: A long way to go and yet the lakeside setting and leisurely pace make the Lake Constance Christmas Fair really unique. Although Konstanz can be as mental as any other city in the holiday season,its size and super-generous layout by the lake shore don’t make it too crowded.
3. Strasbourg: This one just across the border in France consists of numerous market sites all over town. Paired with a beautiful gothic cityscape and great food, Strasbourg is a winner. And no, the recent heinous terrorist attack changes nothing about this.
4. Colmar is similar but appears even more food-orientated, and again, Colmar is so photogenic even without the Christmas Fair, it is always worth a trip.
5. Leipzig: Most visitors to Eastern Germany will leave Leipzig aside and concentrate on the more famous markets in Bavaria, or perhaps Dresden or Berlin. It may not be totally unique in the sense of gift shopping, meaning pretty generic woollens, pottery, candles and the like, but the food is rather good. Also, with the market winding through the pedestrianised city centre rather than concentrating in one spot, it doesn’t get claustrophobic, and you can nip into some rather nice shops if you don’t find enough gifts at the fair.
Disclosure: This trip down the road was planned, orchestrated and paid for by yours truly. All opinions are my own but that may have become bleedin’ obvious by now. Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase anything through these links, I will earn a small commission. As you can see, I wasn’t invited or given the special tour, so I got pretty much the authentic experience with an extra serving of grinch.