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In 1616, so the story goes, the priest at Nuremberg’s beautiful Frauenkirche arrived for his Christmas Eve service to find, to his surprise, an empty hall. The worshippers, instead, were outside, totally preoccupied by the city’s Christkindlesmarkt, the sprawling Christmas market that is still held there to this day.

Inextricably linked with religion, these markets, even now, are found in the shadow of city churches and cathedrals. In a sense it was Martin Luther, the theologian who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation, who helped transform the markets into what we know today. Originally, these gatherings — in the likes of Vienna (first recorded in 1294), Munich (1310) and Frankfurt (1393) — were simply so townsfolk could stock up on essentials during the bleak winter months. After Luther promoted the idea of buying children gifts during the festive period, the markets slowly changed: tradesmen began selling ornate toys and crafts and, eventually, tourists began to visit in huge numbers.

As the Nuremberg priest was shocked to discover, Christmas markets had taken on a life of their own. Four hundred years later, the public appetite for them is greater than ever.

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