Of the many Christmas markets, or Christkindlmarkts, that I visited on a trip to southwestern Germany this week, several things stuck out. First of all, German market food is great. Juicy bratwurst with sharp mustard and crusty, flour-dusted bread; steaming spaetzle with speck (smoked ham) and stringy cheese; smoked fish roasting on spits; Berliners, or fried doughnuts stuffed with jam; candied almonds and roasted chestnuts and the delicious aromas that go with; Glühwein, or mulled wine, whose spicy warmth goes straight to your head.

I tried about five or six bretzels, or pretzels, from different sources — market stalls, bakeries, someone's home — and of varying quality, but the most interesting thing was seeing the diverse techniques people have of eating their pretzels. Some ripped off chunks and squeezed on dabs of mustard; others enjoyed their pretzels with coffee, for breakfast; still others sliced theirs through longitudinally and spread them with butter. This method, proving yet again the important truth that butter really does make everything better, was my favorite.

Christmas markets sprout up all over Germany throughout the whole month of December. The bigger ones occur every day for several weeks, all day and into the night. The most famous, like Stuttgart's, one of the biggest in Germany, or Esslingen's, one of the oldest, for which stallholders still dress up in medieval garb, are veritable tourist attractions — with good reason; they have an inimitable holiday vibe. But the unique-looking mulled-wine stands are actually franchises, and the guetzli (Christmas cookies) all come from a handful of wholesalers, to say nothing of the mass-produced Christmas tree decorations, Lebkuchen molds, Advent calendars, cuckoo clocks, candles and other items on sale.

Smaller villages might only cobble together one weekend's worth of market. Most of the items for sale are edible, and anyway, the market is just an excuse for the village to gather for a party. Farmwives collaborate on Christmas cookie bags, each baking a few kinds to enrich the selection, and the Glühwein is made from scratch, with a local vintner's cheapest bottles and fresh spices and citrus, not a spice mix.

Predictably, markets like these are the choicest — the wares are more interesting, and the ambiance far more characterful. Germany's laws still allow people to publicly sell things they've made in their own kitchens, although E.U. laws are slowly tightening a chokehold on that kind of activity, all over Europe. Let's hope the little old ladies prevail.

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008