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Special to CNN Interactive
(CNN) -- When the snow begins to fall and the air fills with the aroma of bratwurst and lebkuchen (spicy gingerbread cookies), a German Christmas market can't be too far away. There are hundreds of colorful Christmas markets throughout Germany. They're often set on medieval cobblestone squares featuring dozens of vendors, usually in little canvas stalls decorated with lanterns and branches of fir.
Munich has several Christmas markets. The biggest is set in front of the neo-Gothic town hall and its famous glockenspiel (bell tower) on the Marienplatz. This market stretches onto nearby pedestrian-only shopping streets. Each evening, there's musical entertainment from the town hall balcony.
Berlin also hosts several markets. One -- dating back 150 years -- is on the square surrounding the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which still displays the bombing scars of World War Two. Another is on the Alexanderplatz and the surrounding area in what used to be East Berlin. It has an ice skating rink and takes on an Oktoberfest-like atmosphere with games and rides. This market -- like the Striezelmarkt in Dresden -- also has several large displays for children illustrating German fairy tales.
One of Germany's oldest Christmas markets -- and perhaps most impressive -- is in the Bavarian toy-manufacturing town of Nuremberg. The Christkindlesmarkt, or Christ Child's Market, dates back hundreds of years. It's set on the cobblestone Hauptmarkt (Main Market Square) in front of the medieval Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). The market evolved with the tradition of giving Christmas gifts to children. The fair opens on the Friday before advent (late November) and runs through Christmas Eve. Each year, more than 2 million people from around the world visit the market. It can be especially crowded on weekends, so you might want to plan your visit for a weekday.
To help with the flow of people, the food stalls are on the edge of the market. They offer bratwurst, roasted almonds and glühwein (hot mulled red wine). In addition to food, vendors sell toys and thousands of Christmas decorations such as nutcrakers, wooden nativity scenes, candles and hand-blown ornaments. Little figurines wearing handmade clothing called Zwetschgenmännlein (prune people) are popular. They're made of dried prunes and nuts threaded on wire. They come in a variety of characters: men, women, hunters, chimney sweeps and santas, to name a few.
Another traditional item sold is an angel to top Christmas trees. According to legend, the angel was created by a 17th-century dollmaker, Melchior Nauser, whose daughter died just before Christmas. He created the angel in her likeness to help his wife with her grief. When neighbors heard about this angel, they asked for ones, too. And ever since, tourists have flocked to Nuremberg to buy one.
The market's opening ceremony includes an appearance by a figure of the Christ Child, who's portrayed by a local teenage girl. On most other days, there's holiday entertainment, too -- choirs and concerts. There's also a large thatched roof nativity scene at the center of the market. The figures are dressed in traditional Franconian clothing.
Another special event is held on the second Thursday in December. Thousands of school children with flickering, homemade candle-lit lanterns parade through the dark streets of the old town near the market. The procession winds its way through the cold evening air to the city's medieval castle perched on a hill. There, the story of Christmas is presented in song and in living tableaus. It -- like the Christmas markets -- is one of Europe's more memorable sights.
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