It's Christmas year round at these destinations
By KAREN BRADBURY | Stars and Stripes | Published: December 14, 2020
With the most eagerly anticipated events of the season canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, Christmas in Europe looks much different in 2020. While we’ll have to wait another year to stroll past Christmas market stalls, sip mulled wine, or perfect figure eights on the ice rinks, there are certain places where the spirit of the holidays is present year round. Once travel’s a go again, consider getting your pent-up Christmas fix at one of these destinations:
The Erzgebirge, or Ore Mountains of Saxony in eastern Germany are synonymous with Christmas tradition. Long a center for silver and tin mining, as deposits were depleted, local residents turned their hands to crafts such as lace making, weaving and carving. Gradually Seiffen emerged as the center of the startup industry of carving Christmas pyramids, nut crackers and incense burners resembling men smoking pipes. In 1699, town resident Johann Friedrich Hiemann took some wooden toys to the Nuremberg market, at the time a major center for the toy trade in Europe, where they found eager buyers. The advent of a special type of lathe allowed local crafters to turn out quality wares at great speed. Even today, some 120 families and five factories in Seiffen produce this folk art reminiscent of a long past time.
While tourists flock to the Ore Mountains in the weeks before Christmas, numerous craft stores and workshops can be visited year round. The Ore Mountain Toy Museum explores the history of toys and regional Christmas traditions, while the Open Air Museum Seiffen offers 14 historical buildings and workshops in which traditional wood-turning techniques are demonstrated.
This city in Thuringia, in the former East Germany, is considered home of the original glass Christmas tree ornaments. The glassworks established in 1597 first turned out apothecary bottles and drinking goblets, but by the mid-18th century, the latest technology enabled the production of mirrored glass beads that could be strung together to make eye-catching chains. A popular story holds that when a poor local glassblower couldn’t afford the apples, nuts and sweets that typically adorned the Christmas trees of his day, he turned to making hollow glass shapes to decorate it. A picture of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree covered in glass baubles launched the decorating trend in England, and after F.W. Woolworth saw the ornaments of a trip to Germany, he began importing them stateside. Several companies in Lauscha produce glass ornaments to date, among them Krebs Glas, which offers over 5,000 different glass ornaments for sale in its factory outlet. Guided tours of its facilities are also offered.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
An ideally preserved, medieval walled city makes a fitting location for a museum dedicated to Christmas decor and traditions. The “Deutsches Weihnachtsmuseum” displays historical Christmas tree baubles, nutcrackers, pyramids, smokers, Advent calendars, wreaths and more. The museum is an offspring of Käthe Wohlfahrt’s “Christmas Village,” the famous company specializing in Christmas decorations, also in Rothenburg. Other Käthe Wohlfahrt shops in Germany are located in Bamberg, Berlin, Heidelberg, Miltenberg, Nuremberg, Oberammergau and Rüdesheim.
The Presepio, or nativity scene, is a must-have for much of Italy’s population. For one-stop shopping, stroll down Via San Gregorio Armeno and see why this narrow, cave-like passageway has earned the nickname Christmas Alley. Workshops lining the street turn out figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the wise men and shepherds throughout the year. Many of the artisans you’re apt to meet here are following in their family footsteps, carrying out the trades of their great grandfathers, but with a modern twist: In Naples, it’s common to see baby Jesus and the wise men accompanied by figures of beloved soccer players, politicians, and other icons of popular culture. Naples’ San Martin Charterhouse Museum (Certosa di San Martino) also offers a permanent exhibit of nativity scenes.
A Szopka is a historical and nativity scene with a special effect: loose replicas of Krakow’s own buildings serve as the inspiration for these fantastic and colorful models reaching dimensions up to six feet high and 10 feet long. The szopka building tradition dates back to the 19th century, when local craftsmen would construct them as a way to earn money on the side. Since 1937, local authorities have staged an annual competition for the most beautiful and original szopka. The contest takes place on the first Thursday of December each year in the main market square, and the best of them go on display in the Historical Museum of Krakow.
Rajecká Lesná, Slovakia
It took master woodcarver Jozef Pekara more than 15 years to create his stunning Wooden Bethlehem, an enormous rendition of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, episodes from his life, and the history of the Slovak nation. About 300 carved figures of shepherds, miners, loggers, potters, blacksmiths and other industrious types ply their trades and go about their business in their workshops, castles and cathedrals. About half of these figures are animated, and the hand-carved surrounding scenery is based on Slovakian places that truly exist. At 28 feet long and 10 feet high, it’s the largest woodcarving piece of its kind in the world.