The History of Frankfurt's Christmas Market
The Frankfurt Christmas Market is indeed no ordinary event. Its history has been traced back to 1393, when first reference thereof was made in official documentation. The market was traditionally accompanied by the performance of ecclesiastical mystery plays, which were also held on the Römerberg.
History of the Frankfurt Christmas Market
The Frankfurt Christmas Market is indeed no ordinary event. Its history has been traced back to 1393, when first reference thereof was made in official documentation. The market was traditionally accompanied by the performance of ecclesiastical mystery plays, which were also held on the Römerberg. The original mystery play was presumably based on a historical encounter that occurred in 941, when King Otto the Great and his brother Heinrich reconciled after a long period of estrangement. Heinrich had dropped to his knees before his brother outside of the chapel after Christmas mass. This moving scene was put to canvas by the artist, Alfred Rethel. Today, the painting resides in Frankfurt's Historical Museum.
One of the highlights of the market's history dates back to 1498. Christmas of that year saw the landgrave, Wilhelm of Hesse, marry the daughter of the electoral prince of Palatinate. Chronicles speak of a magnificent entourage of horses and riders, over a thousand strong, which accompanied the electoral prince to the wedding ceremony in Frankfurt am Main.
The market of that time still lacked the most significant symbol of the present-day Christmas market - the Christmas tree. Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the evergreen fir tree become a decorative element of the Frankfurt Christmas Market. At first, Christmas trees were sold by privileged Sachsenhausen merchants within the confines of the Römerhalle. Over time, the point of sale was relocated to the area in front of town hall, where the market's representative tree now stands.
Back in the day, the Frankfurt Christmas Market was purely a Frankfurt affair. Outsiders were not particularly welcome, and thus, the market took on a genuine Frankfurt quality. Local artisans proffered only the finest handicrafts, toys, sweets and other Christmas presents. For many years, the most popular toys on sale were wooden waggons and soft toys. Later, these were joined by the wooden hobbyhorse and rocking horse. In the late 19th century, it was common practice for Frankfurt parents to buy toys at the Christmas market and nowhere else.
By the mid-20th century, an unusual and otherwise unfamiliar custom had found its way into Frankfurt's Christmas traditions, that of the "Giant Santa Clauses". In order to make these up-to-two-metre-tall gingerbread figures, private-school pupils raised money and then presented the gigantic, sugar-coated biscuit to their teacher, after which is was devoured by all with much enthusiasm.
"Brenten", "Bethmaennchen" and "Quetschemaennchen" - miniature candy figures - are three typical Frankfurt biscuits that look back upon a long culinary tradition. In former times, large quantities were produced in the bourgeois homes of the city centre. The 19th-century suitor customarily sent a packet of this popular confectionery to the object of his desires. If she kept this present, the admirer could hope to continue his advances. If she did not, it served as a notice for the suitor to abandon his efforts. Ahh, how the times have changed!
One of the greatest fans of Frankfurt Christmas confectionery was the renowned Frankfurt-born author and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. During his tenure as privy councillor in the faraway city of Weimar, he would regularly receive Christmas parcels from his mother containing his favourite Frankfurt treats. No one truly knows how the marzipan-filled "Bethmaennchen" got their name. One version finds Napoleon Bonaparte in Frankfurt, residing at the house of the famous banker, Bethmann, where he supposedly uttered the words: "Kindly give me another of those delicious little Bethmaennchen." Whether he had any during his exiles on Elba and St Helena is still unclear.