In the market for yuletide spirit

If you've ever had a Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere, you'll know how different it feels to be in a cold climate for the holidays. In Australia, we can deck the halls with all the boughs of holly we want, it's just not the same. It's pretty hard here to dash through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, and I don't think poor Frosty would stand much of a chance at the moment.

A Christmas market in the centre of Munich, Germany. Pictures: Michael Turtle

A Christmas market in the centre of Munich, Germany. Pictures: Michael Turtle

In particular, Christmas in Europe has an enchantment that is hard to replicate elsewhere. The winter weather descends on the continent and it feels so comforting to sit by the fire with a cup of warm mulled wine. With darkness arriving so early each day, you welcome the bright festive lights that line the cities' main shopping streets. The smell of pine trees seems perfectly natural in the crisp fresh air of smaller towns, especially when it's accompanied by the sound of snow crunching under your boots.

With all this in mind, perhaps it's no surprise that Christmas has become a tourist attraction in itself in Europe. And it's the continent's Christmas markets that are at the centre of it all.

I have to confess that I never used to see the appeal of Christmas markets. I thought they were just a combination of all the things I dislike about this time of year - manic crowds, overpriced food, and stressful shopping. I can go to my local Westfield to get all of that.

Handmade Christmas decorations at a lakeside market in Tegernsee.

Handmade Christmas decorations at a lakeside market in Tegernsee.

It wasn't until I actually visited a few European Christmas markets that I came to realise why they're different (and it's not just that none of them plays Mariah Carey on repeat). They are, in many ways, the antithesis of the commercial juggernaut that Christmas has become. At the markets, you find the authentic traditions that have made the holidays so magical for generations, without the powerful corporate interests and the unrealistic expectations from mass advertising.

In Germany, for example, it seems like the whole country becomes a festive wonderland, with decorations everywhere. They hang like glittering snow and they warm hearts like a yuletide fire. For Germans, to decorate is to participate and the spirit is strong.

The country has some of Europe's most famous Christmas markets - the iconic ones in Nuremberg, the busy ones in Munich, the fancy ones in Dusseldorf. And then there are the smaller (but still very special) markets in the countryside, like the ones at Tegernsee in Bavaria.

There are actually three main markets here, all at different points on the shore of the Tegernsee lake. To get between them, you can catch a boat across the water, admiring the shining blue lake surrounded by green mountains, with charming towns of Bavarian alpine architecture - sloped roofs, ornate wooden trim and recessed windows.

Local crafts are among the most popular stalls at European Christmas markets.

Local crafts are among the most popular stalls at European Christmas markets.

The markets are made up of little wooden huts, each one a small business, many selling local and handmade products. There are Christmas decorations that have been painted by the woman at the stall or carved at a nearby workshop. There are the collections of scarves and beanies that have been carefully knitted over months. And there are the cheeses, sausages, and jars of fruits that all come from the region's farms.

People mingle around the wooden huts, and they gather at the tables that have been set up in the central areas. Not everyone has come to shop and there's also a sense of community here. Friends and family gather to catch up and buy hot food from the stalls. And, of course, there are generous servings of gluhwein, the warm wine that's made by adding ingredients like cinnamon, oranges and cloves.

This is the friendly and authentic experience you find at Christmas markets across Europe, whether it's the fairy tale feel at Colmar in France, the musical performances at Salzburg in Austria, or the hipster approach at Helsinki in Finland. While each destination embraces the same ideals of Christmas, they present their markets with local traditions that reflect the history and modern culture of its people.

These days, it's easy to find tours that will take you across Europe to the best of the Christmas markets, and there are river cruises that design their itineraries so you can visit the most interesting ones. These are lovely holidays and I can understand why they're becoming more popular by the year. But I don't think it's necessary to travel this way - ticking off multiple markets in multiple countries - to embrace the Christmas spirit.

Rather than viewing a market as the main attraction, try to see it as a window into the destination that is hosting it. The local food being cooked at the stalls, the regional decorations on display, the traditional crafts for sale - these show you more about the culture than a large shopping centre or the city square that might otherwise be empty at another time of the year. Visiting at Christmas gives you an insight you might not normally get.

Too often in our busy lives we can get caught up in the commercialisation of Christmas, stressed about getting the right presents for nephews and nieces, worried that the turkey won't look as plump as the ones on television, panicked about facing the crowds at the shopping centre (and hearing Mariah for the hundredth time this week).

The European Christmas markets don't just offer an escape from all of this, they also remind us of the heritage of the holiday. Not necessarily from a religious perspective, but from a cultural point of view. For centuries we have celebrated with friends and families and we have all done it in our own authentic ways. We respect traditions and we create new ones - whether that's in the cold of Europe or the Australian summer.

Michael Turtle is a journalist who has been travelling the world full-time for eight years. Follow his adventures at timetravelturtle.com

This story In the market for yuletide spirit first appeared on The Canberra Times.