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Enjoying a holiday abroad offers the chance to experience a festival through a fresh cultural lens, appreciating similarities and differences in the fête’s themes, origins and characters — historical and fictional. Christmas in Germany is an excellent example of this reinterpretation to experience during your Viking voyage on the “Romantic Danube” or the “Rhine Getaway.” Across these waterways, familiarize yourself with the jolly Saint Nikolaus and his grumpy companion Krampus, sip a warm mug of spiced glühwein, dine on savory bratwursts and listen to the harmony of classic Germany carols such as O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht. Throughout each of the towns and cities during your voyage, Christmas markets are ever-present, providing a fair-like venue comparable to American Christmas festivals — along with fascinating differences.

viking river cruise Christmas markets in Germany on board credit

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Considered a major tradition for adults and children alike, the Christmas market (in German, referred to as Weihnachtsmarkt or Christkindlmarkt) mainly takes place in the town square, open every day for a few weeks. Vendors sell gifts and foods from booths adorned with decorations, while candles and holiday bulbs illuminate the night. Generally, from November 25 until December 23, guests attend Christmas markets after work or on weekends with their friends and families to enjoy the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of the festival. In Germany, Christmas markets are usually not held on December 24 or 25.

There’s not just one Christmas market per town, though. Some localities might have many: large, small, traditional and modern. During your vacation on the Rhine, there will be opportunities to delight in Christmas markets in Breisach, Koblenz, Cologne, Speyer and Rüdesheim. And along the Danube, you could also make merry during excursions to Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg. No matter where you visit a Christmas market, if you happen to stroll among the booths on December 6, you might bump into a couple of interesting characters.

Though it’s not an official holiday, December 6 is celebrated in Germany as Saint Nikolaus Day by families with children. Saint Nikolaus was a Christian bishop from the 4th century C.E. in Greece. The patron saint of little children, sailors, merchants and students, he was known for performing miracles and secretly giving gifts. Variations of this saint have been incorporated into the Christmas tradition. In fact, the Dutch brought over tales of Sinterklaas when they founded the colony of New Amsterdam in 1624, which later became New York City; this Sinterklaas would later be known as Santa Claus.

While Americans tend to leave stockings above the fireplace for Ol’ Saint Nick to fill, on the night of December 5, German children leave a shoe or boot at the door for Saint Nikolaus, who’ll then fill them with nuts, tangerines, gingerbread, candies or toys…that is, if the children have been good.

For the bad children, there’s Nikolaus’ companion — Krampus, who appears as a monstrous beast with fur, horns and hooves. Occasionally, he’ll have a sack in which he threatens to place kids who didn’t behave well. Overall, experiencing and appreciating these differences in traditions adds an extra layer of entertainment during holiday travel.

During the Christmas markets and throughout the city, you could encounter a Krampuslauf (in English, a Krampus Run), an event where people dress as Krampus and scare pedestrians. This event is more for the adults’ enjoyment. One can work up an appetite after a few hours of running away from Christmas monsters. Fortunately, one of the best features of Christmas markets is the endless bounty of traditional German treats and drink to refuel and warm patrons as they make their way through the magical scenery.