Ireland’s Best Christmas Markets and the Historic Origins of this Festive Tradition

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Did you know that Christmas markets are a centuries-old tradition dating back to the middle ages? During this round-up of the best Christmas markets in Ireland, we took a look at how this festive tradition originally came to be.

In recent years, Christmas markets have become a festive staple in many towns and cities across Ireland. They’re not just about commerce and market transactions, they’re a cultural experience, a social event and a marker of the festive season. So where did Christmas markets first originate?

The Origin of Christmas Markets

The tradition of Christmas markets spans centuries and their routes can be traced back to the late middle ages. The first Christmas markets were held in central Europe, mainly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy and eastern France.

Some of the earliest references to Christmas-specific markets date back to the 12th century, for example German Christmas markets are referenced as being held in Munich in 1310, in Bautzen in 1384, and in Frankfurt in 1392. It’s thought that Christmas markets evolved from winter markets, which date back even further, such as the ‘December Market’ in Vienna in 1294.

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Some of the earliest Christmas markets

The Bautzen Christmas market was originally set up for selling meat. In 1384, King Wenzel (who was king of a group of central European states collectively referred to as Bohemia) gave permission to butchers to sell meat publicly in a market from St. Michael’s Day (a Christian religious feast associated with the end of harvest that falls on September 29th) until Christmas. The Bautzen Christmas, which is still in operation to this day, evolved over the centuries and now sells more traditional goods such as toys and decorations.

Another historic Christmas market that is still in operation to this day is in the German city of Dresden. The Dresden Christmas market, which dates back to 1434, was originally a one-day meat market giving citizens an opportunity to purchase meat for the Christmas feast. The market now sells festive goods and attracts approximately 3 million visitors a year.

A Christian influence

It’s not clear why Christmas markets originated specifically in central Europe, but if you look at the geographical spread of the earliest known markets, you’ll notice that they correlate with the former parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire was a group of kingdoms in central Europe during the early middle ages. Because Christianity had a strong embrace over this empire, Christmas would have been celebrated by most of the population. This would have created a need for markets where people could acquire everything they needed in preparation for this religious feast.

Religion also had an influence over when the markets took place. Advent is an annual Christian time period that begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and lasts until Christmas Eve. Christmas markets evolved to coincide with advent and, as a result, often opened at the end of November or at the beginning of December, and ran right up until the days before Christmas. Modern Christmas markets continue to follow this pattern.

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Destination-specific specialties

As Christmas markets evolved over time, specific towns became known for particular goods, and they still hold these associations to this day. Some examples include:

Aachener Printen Gingerbread from the city of Aachen in Germany: Aachen Christmas Market in Germany is famous for a delicacy similar to gingerbread known as aachener printen’. This term is protected, which means that only the gingerbread-type treat made in the city of Aachen can be called aachener printen.

Quetschenmännchen figurines from Frankfurt, Germany:‘Quetschenmännchen’ are little figurines made from prunes and nuts that were originally given as gifts to women from their admirers.

Stollen bread from Dresden, Germany: Stollen is a German fruit bread native to Dresden in Germany. Every year the city of Dresden hosts a festival called Stollenfest where a giant stollen is baked and sold in slices for a good cause.

Foil angels from Nürnberger, Germany: The Nürnberger market is known for gold foil angels that are handcrafted by local artisans using paper, foil and wax.

Christmas Market traditions

Everyone associates Christmas markets with mulled wine, hot chocolate and tasty treats, but this wasn’t always the case. Many of the earliest Christmas markets started off as meat markets, and eventually expanded to allow local artisans to sell handmade crafts such as woven baskets, homemade candles, hand-blown glass ornaments, wooden nutcrackers and other carved toys. Booths began to pop up selling roasted almonds and chestnuts, and baked goods such as cakes and gingerbread. Musicians began to perform at the events, filling the air with traditional songs and choral arrangements. Eventually this annual event that started off as being something that the public relied on for sourcing goods that could not be obtained elsewhere, became less of a necessity and more of a recreational experience. Modern Christmas markets have become hubs of energy and twinkling lights in what would otherwise be darkened public spaces. They provide a host of stimulation and festive atmosphere for families, couples and individuals to look forward to and enjoy.

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Craft versus Commerce

Christmas markets were at one time a much more artisanal affair, where people could buy handmade crafts that were not otherwise available. Nowadays, many stalls at modern Christmas markets are selling widely-available mass-produced commercial goods and it can be hard to find an experience that is authentically reminiscent of the artisanal markets of bygone days. In Rathaus in Vienna, to avoid the over commercialisation of the Christmas market, there is a craft-friendly culture spanning from a past market motto, which was ‘Kunst statt Kommerz’ meaning ‘art rather than commerce’.

If you want to find ‘art rather than commerce’ in Ireland, head to a special craft market such as the Cork Craft Christmas Market, or one of the weekend Christmas fairs that take place locally in towns across the country. Craft fairs are a treasure chest of gift ideas but they don’t always have that same magical atmosphere found at an open-air Christmas market.

Christmas Markets in Ireland

While Ireland has its fair share of historic year-round markets, it’s only in the last decade that major Christmas markets have begun to firmly establish routes and return every year. Some year-round markets have been in operation for over a hundred years. The English Market in Cork has been in operation since 1788, and market traders have been selling at the site of The Milk Market in Limerick and on Dublin’s famous Moore Street since the 1800s. One or two-day Christmas fairs have been common in Ireland for decades, but established Christmas markets are now becoming an annual Irish staple. One of the longest-established Irish Christmas markets is the Galway Continental Christmas Market, which, in 2016, is in its seventh year.

Tips for visiting a Christmas Market

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes
  • Wear warm clothes
  • Go after dark to admire the lights
  • Plan to eat and drink there
  • Bring cash because cards may not always be accepted
  • Plan your visit so that it coincides with a live music performance
  • Check in advance if there is an entrance fee

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The Best Christmas Markets in Ireland in 2016

1. Cavan: A Taste of Cavan Christmas Market

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Dates: Dec 16th – 21st
Times: From 11am
Location: Market Square, Cavan
Check what’s on: This is Cavan
Don’t miss: Cookery demonstrations – check here for times.
Follow them: Taste of Cavan on Facebook. Taste of Cavan on Twitter.


2. Cork: Cork Craft Christmas Market

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Dates: Dec 10th -24th
Times: 10am – 5.30pm
Location: The Fair Alternative, The Princes Street Church, Cork
Check what’s on: The Fair Alternative
Don’t miss: A chance to buy handmade jewellery, local chutneys, soya candles and other artisan goods.
Follow them: The Fair Alternative on Facebook


3. Cork: Glow – A Cork Christmas Celebration

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Dates: Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in December until the 18th
Times: 12pm – 8.30pm
Location: Bishop Lucey Park, Cork
Check what’s on: Glow – A Cork Christmas Celebration
Don’t miss: The ferris wheel – open from 12pm – 9pm from Nov 25th to Jan 8th (closed Christmas Day and closing early Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve)
Follow them: Glow on Facebook. Glow on Twitter


4. Dublin: Christmas at CHQ

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Dates: Thursday to Sundays from Dec 8th to Dec 23rd
Times: 11am – 4pm
Location: CHQ Building, Custom House Quay, Dublin
Check what’s on: CHQ website
Don’t miss: Post your letters to Santa at a special stall
Follow them: CHQ on Facebook. CHQ on Twitter.


5. Dublin: Winter Funderland at the RDS

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Dates: Dec 12th – 24th
Times: 10am – 8pm daily – except Christmas eve when market closes at 6pm
Location: RDS Dublin
Check what’s on: Winter Funderland
Don’t miss: Speciality foods and gifts for sale from wooden chalets
Follow them: Funderland on Facebook. Funderland on Twitter


6. Galway: The Galway Continental Christmas Market

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Dates: Nov 18th – Dec 22nd 2016
Times: Monday – Wednesday: 12pm – 8pm; Thursday – Sunday: 10am – 10pm
Location: Eyre Square, Galway
Check what’s on: Galway Continental Christmas Market
Don’t miss: The chance to sample a bratwurst German sausage and lots of traditional German beers.
Follow them: Galway Continental Christmas Market on Facebook. Galway Continental Christmas Market on Twitter.


7. Kilkenny: Yulefest Kilkenny

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Dates: Dec 2nd – 4th Dec 9th – 11th Dec 16th – 18th
Times: Friday: 2pm – 8pm Saturday: 10am – 6pm Sunday: 12pm – 6pm
Location: Rothe House and Gardens, Kilkenny
Check what’s on: Yulefest Kilkenny
Don’t miss: Festive music, costumed characters and a chance to visit the historic Rothe House
Follow them: Yulefest Kilkenny on Facebook. Yulefest Kilkenny on Twitter


8. Limerick: Christmas at the Milk Market

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Dates: Dec 4th, 5th, 6th Dec 11th, 12th, 13th Dec 17th – 24th
Times: Fridays: 10am – 4pm Saturdays: 8am – 3pm Sundays: 11am – 3pm. See other times: Christmas at the Milk Market Opening Times
Location: The Milk Market, Limerick
Check what’s on: The Milk Market website
Don’t miss: The Christmas choir competition
Follow them: The Milk Market on Facebook. The Milk Market on Twitter


9. Mayo: Crossmolina Christmas Market

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Dates: Dec 17th-18th
Times: Dec 17th: 10am – 6pm Dec 18th: 12pm – 6pm
Location: The North Mayo Heritage Centre, Enniscoe House, Mayo
Check what’s on: The North Mayo Heritage Centre
Don’t miss: The chance to pick some handmade jams and chutneys, and afterwards to take in one of the looped walks around the estate and down by Lough Conn.
Follow them: The North Mayo Heritage Centre on Facebook


10. Waterford: Waterford Winterval

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Dates: Nov 25th – 27th, Dec 2nd – 4th, Dec 8th – 11th, Dec 15th- 3rd
Times: Thursday from 12pm Friday 12pm – 8pm Saturday 11am – 8pm Sunday 12pm – 8pm
Location: Cathedral Square, Bishop’s Palace, Arundel Square
Check what’s on: Waterford Winterval
Don’t miss: Storytelling at Reginald’s Tower
Follow them: Waterford Winterval on Facebook. Waterford Winterval on Twitter.


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