Christkindlmarkt a great gift

Travellers to Vienna love to visit market

Maria Varga, one of the larger-than-life personalities at Vienna’s
Magic of Advent Christkindlmarkt, is in her element.

In her Bilderrahmer or picture frame workshop, a dozen children cluster around several small tables. Each little artisan is absorbed in decorating a small ceramic frame. Varga, whose smile would light up a Christmas tree, moves around the room, explaining, encouraging and marvelling at the young designers’ work.

“This is my fantasy,” the graphic designer tells parents and onlookers who watch from the sidelines and ogle at her hand painted glass tree ornaments that are on display. It is the ninth year that she has been conducting this workshop.

According to our guide, Linda Pichler, this is “the largest of the city’s half-dozen Christmas markets and the most child-friendly in all Europe.” During Advent and for the two preceding weeks, the Great Hall of the Rathaus – Vienna’s city hall – is transformed into children’s workshops.

From 9 am to 7 pm, youngsters as young as three years old come to create their own small presents for family and friends. For some, it is wood burning letters and designs on the wooden cover of a little journal. Others decorate chubby candles or carve small chunks of soapstone. In the bakery corner, the sign reads Kinder Backen Kekse – children baking cookies. Budding chefs don wee white caps and aprons, their chubby fingers eager to shape their lump of gingerbread dough into whimsical cookies. In yet another workshop, there’s an opportunity to make a wish while designing a dream catcher.

They’ve been doing this since 1986 and last year, 80,000 precious gifts made their way to homes in Vienna and around Europe. The three euros ($4.75) per activity (1.20 euros for the bakery) charge covers the cost of materials.

This year, for the first time, adults have their own stand in the workshop. Last year, parents let the organizers know they too wanted to get in on the fun while waiting for their children. .

Adding to the spirit of the season, are daily concerts, sung by choirs from around the world.

Outside, clusters of wooden stalls decorated with evergreen boughs and sparkling lights, sprawl across the lawns in front of the magnificent19th century building. By 4:30, in the fading light, the awesome tree decorations come alive.

Around the grounds, bare-branch trees are festooned with plastic lights, the size of large balloons in the shape of snowmen, friendly Christmas spirits, bears and hearts. Front and centre a giant 27- meter fir tree reaches for the sky. Beneath its branches, there’s a nativity scene with life-size figures.

Wandering about, we suddenly find ourselves in a flurry of pseudo snowflakes. Looking up, we see Frau Holle, of Austrian fairy tale fame, leaning out of the window of her little house on the overhead arch, vigorously shaking a pillow. According to the legend, it’s Frau Holle’s frenzied housekeeping that makes snow.

At the Steiff Bear Company’s animated Woodland Mill, furry bears and adorable woodland critters busy themselves in their forest home, felling trees, chopping wood and building furniture. It triggered a fond memory for me. All at once, I was a little girl again, my nose pressed against Eaton’s’ and Simpson’s’ Christmas windows, mesmerized by the wonder of it all.

Feeling the comfort of childhood days seems to captivate the hearts of visitors and locals alike. Last year three and a half million converged on The Magic of Advent.

Schonbrunn (it means beautiful fountain) Palace, a twenty-minute subway ride from the city centre, is one of the most spectacular palaces in all of Europe. Once the summer home of Empress Maria Theresa and the little girl who would become Marie Antoinette, the interior is the ultimate in Rococo design. The Hapsburgs’ aim was to out-Versailles Versailles. During Advent, the spacious courtyard is ringed with wooden stalls for the Schonbrunn Christkindlmarkt.

Garbriela Schmidle, the young director, welcomes us like neighbours, telling us she spent two years working as a nanny in Whitby and Malton. We visit on a clear morning. It is a breathtakingly beautiful setting. Schmidle tells us it is even more stunning and very romantic at dusk when the butter-hued castle turns to orange and the sky, to dark blue. And magical when it snows.

Schmidle has overseen the selection of artisans and food vendors who have expanded from 40 to 60 since the market’s inception ten years ago. . “It’s my baby,” she says modestly. “And he’s going to school now.”

The vendors come, mainly from Austria, but also from Hungary, Slovenia and Germany. Selection is based on a Christmas theme and preferably hand made. Whether it’s beeswax candles, miniature hand painted tin soldiers, exquisite crèches or delicate glass ornaments, the quality here is superb. Most artisans work all year, to produce collectibles. Many will undoubtedly become family heirlooms.

While the occasional Santa Claus finds his way into shop windows along Vienna’s broad shopping avenues, you won’t find any roly poly, red-clad, men at this market. The benevolent gentleman who brings chocolates to good Austrian children on December 6th is St. Nikolaus. On Christmas Eve, they receive gifts from the Christ Child. “We treasure these traditions,” Schmidle explains, “and we are trying to preserve them.”

It’s dark when we visit the Spittelberg Market, amidst the old city’s gothic spires and baroque domes. Cinnamon, cloves and roasting chestnuts perfume the brisk evening air. Everyone mingles, drinking mugs of hot gluhwein (the wine that makes you glow), or steaming punsch (made with rum, orange juice and spices). We nibble on mega pretzels filled with cream cheese and Erdapfelpuffer (potato puffers) slathered with garlic, before going on to peruse aisles full of unique decorations and gifts.

Of all the reasons why Maria Varga and millions of visitors return year after year, there are few more compelling than the magic of Vienna’s Christkindlmarkts.

Toronto Star, December 18, 2004