It’s my favorite time of year, St. Patrick’s Day. Clocks spring forward and daylight devours night, colorful buds sprout on deserted branches and storefront windows display rainbows, four-leaf clovers, and cauldrons full of gold signifying the start of the festivities. Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, especially in the United States.
The Republic of Ireland Flag
Who is St. Patrick to the Irish?
He is the Patron Saint of Ireland, credited with bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle in the latter half of the 5th Century. It is believed he died on March 17 and the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Church and Eastern Orthodox faiths observe this date to celebrate his life and missionary work.
My Irish friends don’t understand the fuss Americans make regarding their holiday being widely celebrated in the United States with elaborate parades, month-long festivals and shamrock colored shakes at McDonald’s. For the Irish, it’s a bank holiday and businesses, schools and even pubs are closed (outside of major cities). Many Catholics attend Mass, people dress up in green, pin a corsage to their lapel and little girls fasten flowing ribbons in their hair. The Catholic Church grants a dispensation on St. Patrick’s Day giving people the day off from Lenten observances and the children take full opportunity to consume sweets and adults relish in a pint of beer or glass of whiskey all in the name of St. Paddy.
A family friend, Jean O’Callaghan of Lahinch, Ireland, told me, “I’m a bit of a cynic or something, but for a long time now, I am not sure he (St. Patrick) existed. A bit like Santa Claus but was a super marketing coup.”
When Jean was younger, there were small parades in Ireland comprised of boy scouts, the army and local brass bands or football (rugby) clubs. Nothing like today’s sizable parades in Chicago and New York and definitely no corned beef!
My Irish outfit on St. Patrick’s Day during March Madness
In the United States, we adorn green top hats, drink green beer and Guinness, march in parades but mostly we crowd pubs and restaurants to listen to Irish music and toast our Irish comrades across the Atlantic Ocean. We drink Baileys Irish Cream, dance the Irish jig and embrace our often non-existent Irish roots with buttons declaring, Kiss me I am Irish or Irish for the Day and my favorite I Bleed Green. The American ensemble typically consists of floppy hats, green shamrock sweaters and beads. We love beads. I admit to wearing a Leprechaun inspired hat and Kelly green fitted jacket every holiday.
Family trip to Ireland in 1999
In 2016, my father became an Irish Citizen after a year’s wait. It took both of us working side by side examining difficult to read ship manifests and his family’s genealogy reports from County Mayo to piece together his family’s 150-year-old history before he could apply for citizenship. The Irish Government grants citizenship to foreign-born children and grandchildren of Irish-born citizens. When I asked my dad why he wanted to be Irish, he said, “It was important to honor his ancestors who strived to give him a better life.” My dad is a proud Irishman, the only true Irishman in our family (my mother maintains German roots). His paternal grandfather hailed from County Mayo and his maternal great grandparents from County Meath. I treasured the time I spent with my dad working on his citizenship papers and while my DNA report states that I am only 68 percent Irish/Great Britain, on St. Patrick’s Day I am 100 percent Irish.
Christmas is coming. The Kelster is getting fat, please put a euro in the old gal’s newly purchased hat(s). If you haven’t got a euro, a cup of glühwein will do, if you haven’s got a glühwein, then God save you.
After visiting more than 30 Christmas markets throughout Austria, Germany and France, I am an expert on sausage, pumpkin soup in a bread bowl, pretzels, waffles, glühwein, chocolate, and Advent wreaths. There is a consensus that once you try one, you have tried them all but I don’t subscribe to that logic. Each market is regionally themed and the crafts and food are a reflection of the surrounding villages and towns. There are many similarities like handmade candles and paper stationary, Nutella crepes, local wines and liquors, and staged stalls constructed around city halls and historic parks and former palaces but the flavor and presentation change from place to place. In Nuremburg, stalls are striped red and white, in Vienna, ice skating rinks wind through the City Hall Rathausplatz and in Strasbourg, the proclaimed Capital of Christmas, colored ornaments and chubby gingerbread fill the shelves and cheese is the topping of choice. The towns come alive with locals and tourists from all over the world visiting the Christkindlmarkts in the four weeks leading up to Christmas. There is music and dancing and eating and drinking. Relive childhood memories and revel in the spirit of Christmas.
Before you go, here are a few tips to make the most of your visit.
1.) Eat everything. There are so many goodies to taste that are special to Christkindlmarkts in Europe. You need hearty food to keep you warm and there are a variety of soups, sandwiches and desserts to fill your tummy.
Eggnog liquor at the Vienna Christmas markets
2.) Drink the Glühwein. Try hot mulled wine with Whiskey or Amaretto and pick the spot with the busiest stall to mingle with locals. Try the Glühwein with a shot of Bailey’s or eggnog liquor once but definitely not twice. Each market has a specifically designed mug for visitors. Keep yours as a reminder of your experience or return it to retrieve your deposit.
3.) Pick a few markets to see. Each village or city throughout Europe offers several themed Christmas markets throughout the area. Don’t try to conquer every market in Europe but select an area you have also wanted to see as a tourist and enjoy the markets as a bonus. If you have children, there is usually one market that caters to kids with rides, treats and fictional characters.
Capital of Christmas, Strasbourg, France
4.) Visit the markets by day and night. The daytime is often less crowded and people tend to grab a drink or quick bite and leave. At night, electricity fills the markets and people browse stalls and linger around glühwein vendors. The alleyways, storefronts and decorations are illuminated creating a romantic atmosphere. There are usually carolers and musicians performing on main stages.
5.) Dress in layers. Expect rain, wind, snow and cold. You will spend many hours outside. Be prepared with boots, gloves, warm hats and coats.
Example of some of the candles sold at the markets
6.) Shop until you drop. Vendors sell ornaments, candles, jewelry, hats, socks, liquors, wine, honey, soaps, local desserts and other items for purchase. Most items are handmade. Consider buying something special to the market you visit.
7.) Learn something new. Each market offers walking or on the bus off the bus tours featuring the destination or even an overview of the history of the market. Several places offer Christmas museums where you can learn about Christmas traditions through the centuries. Take a break from the glühwein and cold and duck into a museum.
8.) Book hotels in advance. Christmas markets are very popular for tourists. If you want a spot nearby the city center or close to the action, be prepared to book early. This is an annual activity for many groups.
9.) Go by foot. Wander through the stalls admiring the skill and craftsmanship of local artists. Grab a pair of skates and twirl around the rink absorbing the sights and sounds of Christmas.
10.) Follow the signs but get lost. Most of the markets take place in the old city or in the center of town and are thoughtfully planned around access for locals and tourists. Follow your nose to one market and the bold and beautiful lights of the next. Just when you think you have seen them all, another market more spectacular will greet you.
German and Austrian Guide to Eating and Drinking at the Markets
Glühwein – Hot mulled wine. Red wine (white wine more traditional in Austria and France) made with spices and citrus fruits and can be spiked with whiskey or amaretto
Punsch – Juice with liquor or without for kids
Heidelbeer-Glühwein – Blueberry mulled wine
Eierpunsch – Hot spiked eggnog liquor. It’s rich and strong with whipped cream
Eat, Drink and Be Merry in Vienna, Austria. Rathausplatz, City Hall
Heiße Schokolade – Hot chocolate with or without whip cream
Brezels – Made to be eaten daily, pretzels are sold in bakeries and shops across Germany, Austria and Alsace, France. Pretzels are plain with salt, covered with layers of dark and white chocolate and other sweets
Kartoffelpuffer– Greasy potato pancakes eaten with salt or topped with apple sauce, sugar or cinnamon
Kaiserschmarrn, shredded pancake with raisins, rum and topped with sugar or applesauce
Kaiserschmarrn – My favorite! A traditional Austrian and Bavarian dish named after Kaiser Franz Joseph I. It’s similar to bread pudding with raisins, nuts, plums and apples and topped with vanilla sauce or apple sauce
Spätzle – Short egg noodles with cheese or ham or bacon and onions
Pommes Mit Mayo – Steaming hot French fries with mayo on top
Chestnuts or Maronen, Maroni, Marrons
Maronen (Maroni) Marrons – “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”
Raclette – A large wheel of Swiss cheese that is heated. The top of the cheese is scraped off and put on toasted bread. Bacon can be added
Lebkuchen – German cookies similar to gingerbread
Gebrannte Mandeln – Toasted almonds
Waffles with Nutella
Waffeln – Waffles with Nutella, marzipan, powdered sugar
Bratkartoffel – Baked potatoes with all the toppings
Sausages, Sauerkraut and more in Strasbourg, France
Bratwurst / Rostbratwurst – Fried sausages
Stollen/Christstollen – Traditional German Christmas cake similar to a coffee cake with dried candied fruit, nuts and spices. The original comes from Dresden
Betmännchen – Chubby doughy gingerman looking treat made with yeast
Krapfen – A Berliner Pfannkuchen is a traditional German pastry similar to a doughnut with no central hole. Made with sweet yeast dough fried it is filled with marmalade or jam and topped with frosting, powdered sugar or regular sugar.
Schokofrüchte – Chocolate covered dried fruit
A local doughy dessert like dumpling filled with plum and topped with vanilla sauce
Riesen Germknödel – Popular in Austria and Southern Germany (Bavaria) it is a bun shaped sweet dumpling filled with plum jam and covered with a thick vanilla sauce. It’s a traditional dish that locals eat regularly
Baumstriezel – Thin dough wrapped around a baking spit and then rolled in sugar, nuts, chocolate and cinnamon. It has a deep hollow center. It originated from the Hungarian areas of Romania where it’s called Kürtőskalács
Baumstriezel, dough wrapped around a spit topped with sugar and nuts
In Stasbourg, France
Beignets – A deep-fried pastry similar to a fritter. Can be plain or filled with chocolate or strawberry
Pretzels with loads of cheese and bacon in Strasbourg, France
Bretzel aux lardons – Hot pretzels with loads of cheese and bacon sprinkles
Tartes flambées – A specialty of the Alsace region, it’s a piece of bread covered with thick cheese or cheese and onions or bacon
Bread with melted cheese in Strasbourg, France
Chocolat chaud – Yummy hot chocolate. It’s nearly as thick as pudding