Many are the Christmas markets in Germany, but without a doubt, the oldest ( 1697) and most famous is Nuremberg's Christkindlesmarkt, Christ Child's Market.
Here hundreds of fir-trimmed, canopied booths spread from the steps of the stately old Frauenkirche, Church of Our Lady, to the beautiful fountain called Schonen Brunnen.
Up and down dozens of little ''streets,'' shoppers find a dazzling array of gifts - finely crafted wooden manger scenes, booths with armies of brightly painted wooden soldier nutcrackers and toys galore.
There are hundreds of little souvenir prune dolls, their wrinkled faces reminders of someone's uncle or aunt. For the more practical minded, a few women are selling stacks of woolen sweaters, mittens, and stockings.
To fill an empty branch on your Christmas tree, there are booths offering only wooden ornaments. Suspended from slender red threads hang tiny babes soundly sleeping in half a walnut shell. Fat, thumb-size cherubs wink through a star, ride a rocking horse, or sit on the tip of a gold crescent moon.
At dusk as myriads of lamps are lighted, organ-grinders in red Santa suits steadily crank out ''O Tannenbaum,'' while Bach oratorios and Advent singing echo through the old Lorenzkirche down the street.
But perhaps the best of Nuremberg is the food - marvelous, crazy combinations of zesty German food - and lots of it. Juicy bratwurst, plump shiny knackwurst, and tiny finger-size Nurnbergerwurst sizzle over white-hot coals.
Aproned vendors dispense 1 or 2, or 10 wursts with sweet mustard, crunchy Brotchen (rolls), and tangy German potato salad.
For dessert you may have Christmas bread - thick slices of Dresdnerstollen under a blizzard of powdered sugar, or buttered pieces of the ancient south-German Fruchtebrot, or Fruit Bread, also called Hutzelbrot.
And who can browse around the fair without nibbling the celebrated ''Echte Nurnberger Lebkuchen,'' the authentic honey cakes?
Bakers' booths are cluttered from top to bottom with Lebkuchen hearts - little hearts, big hearts - hearts tied with crimson ribbons, trimmed with lacy white icing, decorated with almonds and cherries.
Even so, one shouldn't miss the Handwerkhof or handcraft market. Here, in the shadow of the old Konigstor (King's Gate), one finds tiny houses and shops surrounding a cobblestone courtyard where artists carry on the crafts of the original market.
The friendly Springerle baker cuts his dough from ancient molds, while a pretty girl paints the cameo-size cookies. Inside other little houses a glassblower spins a fragile thread into a tiny fawn, artists etch pictures of old Nuremberg houses onto plates of steel.
A young woodcarver explains: ''The market used to be for poor people. Now only the rich can afford it.'' ''The famous Nuremberg prune dolls,'' he adds, ''were made originally so the poor could afford to buy gifts for their children.''
There are many kinds of Lebkuchen, explains Herr Kastel - round, square, light, dark - but the best, by far, are the Elisen, made with ''sugar, eggs, almonds, and only 10 percent flour.''
Lebkuchen bakers abound in this city, where they originated in monastary kitchens hundreds of years ago.
Today more than 70 million of these cookies are baked each year. ''But the finest quality are made by Haberlein-Metzger, the bakery whose honey cakes are shipped all over the world.''
For centuries, says the elderly master baker, Germans have made Hutzelbrot (dried pear bread) for Christmas. Long a farmer's favorite, Fruit Bread-Hutzelbrot combines a mountain of dried fruit and nuts in a regular dark bread dough.
Holding up a long, flat Stollen, Baker Kastel stresses that a good Dresdnerstollen must be made with ''equal parts (a kilo) of butter (better still , butterfat) and flour, yeast, milk, and a handful of sugar.
''But not too much,'' he warns, ''lest it brown too much and spoil the appearance. Then add fruit, almonds, and spices to the dough. However, it is the sweet Zitronat (citron),'' he says with a twinkle in his eye, ''that gives the Stollen its 'certain joy.' ''
What is the difference between Dresdner and Christstollen? ''Dresdner is heavy because of the butter,'' he replies, ''while Christstollen is lighter and will 'lift itself.' '' Many were the Stollen, breads, and Lebkuchen baked by this gentle old man during his 40 years of baking in Nuremberg's Hainstrasse.
Here is a recipe for one of the market's specialties. Elisenlebkuchen 3 cups powdered sugar 2 eggs Grated rind of 1 lemon 1/4 teaspoon cloves 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 cup citron or candied lemon peel, finely diced 1/4 cup candied orange peel, finely diced 2 1/4 cups unblanched almonds, ground Flour, only if needed Backoblaten Glaze
Beat room-temperature eggs until light and lemon-colored. Gradually add sugar and beat until thick and creamy. Add spices, lemon rind, and candied peel. Stir in almonds. If eggs are very large or the dough seems runny, add 2 to 3 tablespoons flour. Chill 2 to 3 hours.
Traditionally, the cookies are baked on edible white baking disks called Backoblaten (bock-o-blotten) to keep them from sticking to baking pans and to serve as a protective coating along with the glaze on top, while the cookies age.
German-style delicatessens sell Oblaten in several sizes; you'll need the 60 mm size (about 2 1/2 inches). Well-buttered kitchen parchment may be used to line baking pan as a substitute.
Spoon teaspoonsful of dough onto Backoblaten. With knife or small spatula dipped in water, spread batter over Oblaten, heaping slightly in center. Place on ungreased baking sheet.
Bake at 275 degrees F. 20 to 25 minutes. Glaze immediately after baking. If baking on parchment, allow cookies to cool on pan. Cool and store in airtight container 2 to 3 weeks to age and soften.
For glaze, stir together 1 cup unsifted powdered sugar and 3 to 4 tablespoons hot water until very smooth. Brush on cookies when they are removed from the oven.