Nollaig Shona Duit! Regardless of where you were raised, Christmas is one of the most (if not, the most) anticipated celebrations of the year by people around the globe, and the Irish are no exception to this rule. In fact, there may be no better time to visit Ireland than December. The unique beauty of Ireland’s Christmas spirit seems to infect the whole country with a special love and excitement that would melt the heart of the meanest Grinch. This wonderful holiday cheer is most evident in the form of Ireland’s iconic Christmas markets. All around Ireland, townspeople from every walk of life celebrate Christmas together in the middle of their city, meeting up for a hot drink, enjoying the work of local artisans, listening to the choirs, and otherwise celebrating one of the holiest times of the year.
It is widely believed Christmas markets began popping up around central Europe in the late middle ages, primarily throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France. The Germanic influence seems to dominate most markets, although most, if not all, markets today typically offer a sampling of at least a few European cultures. One of the earliest references to a “December Market” dates back to 1294, in reference to a seasonal market in Vienna. Some historians have noted the increased practice of Christmas markets in conjunction with the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. It is thought the markets were originally established to help townspeople prepare for the celebration of Advent beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and lasting until Christmas Eve. Modern markets roughly follow this same timeline, opening in late November or early December and running up until days before Christmas. Originally selling just food, the markets evolved over time to include wares from local artisans, including homemade crafts, hand-woven baskets, hand-blown glass ornaments, carved toys, candles, cakes, and more.
Christmas markets have existed in some way, shape, or form in Ireland since the 1700s as well. Open-air markets in the center of town have historically been a common and very important fixture to town life for ages in Ireland. Some markets, such as the English Market in Cork, remain open year round (The English Market has operated continuously since 1788). Other longtime markets in Ireland include the Milk Market in Limerick, and Dublin’s famous Monroe Street market which have both been around since the 1800s. Although these markets have always shifted their offerings towards Christmas-related goods during the holiday season for many years, the contemporary concept of Christmas markets in Ireland is a somewhat recent import. Today they are leveraged somewhat as a means to increase tourist traffic, while at the same time shine a light on what makes Ireland a special place to be in during the holidays. For instance, Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford (which celebrated its 1104th birthday this year), is hosting its third Christmas market in 2018. The WinterVal Waterford Christmas market boasts over 60 market stalls, a 3D light show, a toy museum, Ferris wheel, and of course endless amounts of food from around Europe.
Over the last few decades, the tradition has made it beyond Ireland and is now enjoyed in hundreds of cities across the United States, although American Christmas markets generally mimic the look and feel of the historic German markets. Americans seem to celebrate Christmas a bit earlier every year, but Ireland’s Christmas season firmly begins December 8, coinciding with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and ends January 6 with the Feast of the Epiphany. However, Ireland’s Christmas markets generally kick off the last week of November and run up to the week before Christmas, giving visitors plenty of time to explore the picturesque winter beauty of the markets and the cities they inhabit. While each Christmas market is unique, they all share at least a few common traits: endless amounts of food, a carnival-like atmosphere, warm alcoholic drinks (you have to stay warm in sub-freezing temperatures somehow. Eierpunsch, anyone?) and a resident Santa Claus to greet visitors. Other common activities for children include storytelling, puppet shows, and ice-skating.
Read on for a glimpse into just a few of Ireland’s more popular Christmas markets, and what makes them such a popular destination for tourists around the world. We’ve also highlighted a few American markets that have become popular spots for those wishing to stick a little closer to home.
CONTINENTAL MARKET, GALWAY
The Continental Market in Galway is one of Ireland’s most popular holiday destinations. In 2017, more than 350,000 descended on Eyre Square over the course of the four-week Christmas celebration. 2018 will mark the ninth year of operation for this Christmas market and has become known for its assortment of amusement rides (including a 32-metre Ferris wheel), a huge lineup of live music performers, puppet shows, choirs, community caroling events. Additionally, visitors can feast on a huge variety of “continental” food including bratwursts, French pastries, pretzels, crêpes, and much more. Beer lovers are in for a treat, as the market features one of the largest selections of beers, as well as ciders and wines.
MILK MARKET, LIMERICK
One of Ireland’s longest running year-round markets also happens to be one of the best places to celebrate Christmas. Since the 1850s, the Milk Market in Limerick has continually evolved to serve the needs of the people who call this city home, and historically was a crucial center for regional commerce for decades. Cattle, pigs, dairy products, breads and cakes, hay, clothing, and much, the Milk Market has seen it all. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the market started to become a popular spot to celebrate Christmas. Since then, it’s notoriety has sky-rocketed its popularity among travelers from around the world. Today, the market is home to numerous organic food vendors dedicated to the farm-to-table ethos. Come Christmas time, vendors switch gears to welcome the many seasonal visitors to their city.
BELFAST CHRISTMAS MARKET
The Irish Tourism Group calls the Belfast Christmas Market “one of the best” in Northern Ireland, and if size and sheer variety is any indication of that, then they are probably right. More than 90 chalets representing over 30 countries will cram themselves around Belfast’s stunning city hall from November 17 to December 22. In addition to offering visitors an unforgettable Irish Christmas experience, the Belfast market is known for its rich presence of German, French, Spanish, and Italian traders. Culinary explorers will have a field day sampling endless varieties of cheeses, olives, nougat, Belgian chocolates, tarts, paella, and a variety of exotic meats including alligator, impala, boar, and even kangaroo.
CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN DUBLIN
Within just the last few years, Dublin has seen a host of Christmas markets pop up within the city limits. These include the Ha’Penny Christmas Market, the Dublin Christmas Flea Market, the Après VILLAGE, and the Spirit of Dublin Christmas Craft Fair. Sponsored by DublinTown and We Are DublinTown, a non-profit organization of Dublin’s business community, each of these special Christmas markets runs throughout December. The kick off for Dublin’s Christmas season starts when the city’s Christmas lights are switched on towards the end of November (complete with a colorful light show), and ends when the lights are turned off in the first week of January.
DOWNTOWN HOLIDAY MARKET, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Considered one of America’s best holiday markets, the Downtown Holiday Market located on F Street is right in the heart of the nation’s capital. It also widely considered to be one of the most festive and largest Christmas markets in the United States. Hundreds of regional artisans, crafters, brewers, and entertainers will converge on the sprawling sidewalks in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum from November 23 to December 23 for four weeks of Christmas joy.
COLUMBUS CIRCLE HOLIDAY MARKET, NEW YORK
Thanks in part to this market’s location at the entrance of the iconic Central Park, the Columbus Circle Holiday Market is another one of the United State’s popular Christmas Markets. Additionally, the unparalleled quality of New York’s designers and artisans make this market another standout popular among New York’s residents and tourists alike. Endless rows of stalls filled with art, jewelry, incredible food, clothing, and home goods make Columbus Circle a place where visitors can get all their Christmas shopping done at once while at the same time get a true New York experience.
At Christkindlmarket, it’s all about the sausages. As one of the United States’ longest running Christmas markets (2018 will be its 23rd year of operation), Christkindlmarket has become known for its unbeatable German-inspired food and decor with special attention paid to how food was made and served in 16th century Nuremberg, Germany. Additionally, the market is known for its high-quality gifts, food, entertainment, and value as a family-friendly environment. This year’s market takes place November 16 and lasts until Christmas Eve.
The Christkindlmarket takes its name from the Christkind, a fairy-like being dating back to the 1500s. In German folklore, the Christkind, adorned in gold and white robes, bears gifts to children in German-speaking countries, much like Santa Claus. In Christmas parades throughout German history, the Chirstkind typically served as the grand angel which lead the procession through town.
Christmas markets represent a historical and cultural celebration of the specific towns they are held in. But these markets also let visitors experience what Christmas is like in other parts of the world. They are also important for local businesses. In an age when busy shoppers are seduced by the quick convenience of online buying, Christmas markets have become a means of keeping money local, increasing tourism, and at the same time build a sense of community among those who wish to share the joy of Christmas together.