Originally Published December 1st, 2021
From the last week of November and all through December, a magical thing happens all across Germany: der Weihnachtsmarkt (the Christmas Market). Each town’s city square begins to fill with wooden shacks and ornate cottages. Pine trees are schlepped into place and knighted with lights. Meandering pathways emerge. Rickety fences, loose bales, and flickering lanterns guide the visitors through this new village within a village. One or two kiddie carnival rides get wedged in only slightly disturbing the time travel being achieved by surreal surroundings.
As night falls, the new dorf dwellers emerge to prop open their windows and doors. The smell of freshly baked bread and pretzels floats alongside sizzling bratwurst. Fresh poffertjes and hot chocolate with an undercurrent of high octane coffee swirls to inform the needy. But there is yet another note in the air. It might be wine? Or something stronger? We should investigate.
Winding through the crowd, we seem to be getting closer. A squat cabin full of warm candlelight comes into view. An elven man with wild hair scurries between several copper cauldrons, mixing and sampling, smelling the steam, and stoking the fires burning beneath. At this range, the atmosphere is drenched in whatever he’s concocting. Suddenly he stands in a calm moment of consideration, then dashes to the corner reaches up and grabs a rope. A large bell sounds over and over and the crowd turns to the cabin. He yells something in six ascending notes. Half a beat later, a line has already formed at his windowsill.
Metal marquee letters packed with yellow incandescent bulbs span the cabin’s roof and spell out FEUERZANGENBOWLE. Sounding it out FOY-ER-TSANG-EN-BOW-LEH. Yeah, I guess that’s what he said. Literally “fire tongs punch.” So what is fire tongs punch? It might be the most effective winter-weather-warder-offer ever forged by mankind.
To brew a batch of Feuerzangenbowle, you need a dry red wine, rum, sugarloaf, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise seed, orange peels, and vanilla pods. Put the red wine and spices into a pot and heat to just under a boil (a.k.a the temperature of McDonald’s coffee before they were sued). Let that cook and steam until your kitchen smells like Christmas. At this point, you’ve already created something called Glühwein (literally “glowing wine”). This is actually the most common drink in German Christmas markets. Try some, it’s delicious!
To turn this German word for a drink into an even longer German word for a drink, now we add rum and sugar. We don’t just pour them in, there is no ceremony in that. We place a mesh grate on top of the pot while it’s still cooking. The sugarloaf (usually in the form of a tall cone) is positioned in the center. Pour some rum over the sugar cone and set it alight. If the balance is correct, you will now have rum-soaked sugar slowly caramelizing and dripping into the wine. Stir and sample and eventually, there will be a nice mix of spicy wine, a singe of rum, and sweet caramel to round it out.
Needless to say, this is a very adult beverage. The kind of drink where it’s a special treat but one is usually enough.
If you’re suddenly hungry after a visit to the fire tongs punch fairy, the Christmas Market does not disappoint. Beyond snacks and sweets and drinks, there are plenty of coma-compliant meals to be had. Try a basket of country potatoes, Flintstonian ham slices with bacon cubes, and cabbage on for size? Or perhaps a thin steak filet wrapped around pickles, beets, and onions is more your style? There’s always the classic of Braunkohl and Bregenwurst (literally “brown kale and brain sausage”).
Complete your visit by spending entirely too much money on an array of handmade knick-knacks, leather goods, or festive figurines and it’s time to go home. You’ll probably be back again.
The Christmas Market opens to close out the calendar, giving everyone a chance to spend time together and celebrate another trip ‘round the sun. Real friends in a fake holiday hamlet. No one does Christmas like Germany. It is a genuinely magical capper to slow down the final weeks of a fleeting year.