Gift Shopping Abroad: 5 Ideas from European Christmas Markets

December 19, 2013 | By | No Comments

Getting your holiday shopping done in a foreign country always seems to add a little panache to your gifts. On my Viking Skadi cruise from Passau to Budapest, I found trinkets for everyone on my list  – including much-appreciated ornaments for my co-workers at Cruise Critic. Not to give anything away, but here are some of my favorite gift possibilities I found in Europe’s famous Christmas markets.
1. Hats — A vision of Bavaria’s well-known pointed hats (with a decorative edelweiss or feather) may come to mind when you think of Germany, but their Christmas markets provide quite a selection of head-toppers for everyone on your list, to flatter or embarrass. A few fellow passengers from warm-weather climates found themselves clambering to the nearest haberdashery (ok, hat stand) to cover their cold ears from the chillier climate. Whether you’re looking to keep warm or purely make a fashion statement, consider adding this accessory to your list. I still have my very own from over a decade ago, complete with pompoms, ear flaps and a chin string.
2. Creative nativity scenes — Many say it’s the reason for the season, and religious statuettes and meticulously hand-carved dioramas are plentiful in Europe, where there’s a church on just about every street corner. There are endless varieties and styles of nativity sets available, which could make for a fun collection if you plan on returning to the markets. Even if you’re not particularly religious, it’s hard to keep from marveling at the craftsmanship given to these precious scenes. One of my favorite renditions isn’t a scene at all but rather a small token called Jesus in a Nutshell, because it is, quite literally, a tiny figurine of baby Jesus cradled in a nutshell.
3. Things on a string — The obvious pick here is ornaments, but that’s too… obvious. While ornaments are plentiful, you’ll find all kinds of sparkling, intriguing and even fragrant objects attached to a string, and hanging from most Christmas market stands. My personal favorite was garlands of orange peel, cinnamon, and various dried fruits and flowers that gave off an invigorating perfume. Ornate votive candle holders on chains glimmered in the sun, tiny dolls and critters playfully swayed on a string in the winter air and the places I could hang such adornments populated exponentially in my mind. Shown here is a wooden lantern from Salzburg, Austria.
4. Heart-shaped cookies — Perhaps best known in Vienna, (there’s an entire tree with red hearts glowing warmly from its bare branches), heart-shaped cookies are a holiday tradition for locals. Saccharine phrases scrawled on gingerbread in pastel icing translate to things like “Merry Christmas.” They’re plastic wrapped and survived a flight, so they’re a sturdier bet than other confections. My great-aunt (from Germany) once sent me one that read “Ich liebe die” or “I love you” and it was too sweet to eat. Save them two months and they’re an unexpected Valentine’s Day gift!
5. Handmade toys — In an increasingly tech savvy world, it was actually refreshing to find a handmade toy without a touchscreen, button or automation in sight. Whether you’re snatching them up for display, or gifting them to a child, ‘old-world’ toys such as these marionettes may remind you of a simpler time when things were made from wood, paint and craftsmanship, not computer chips. Nutcrackers are also as varied as the people that buy them. I would still advise double-checking the sticker on the bottom — just because you found it at a local market, it’s always nice to be sure it didn’t get there by way of China.
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