Christmas market brings good cheer to Dresden

Germany's oldest Christmas market sells local crafts, giving eastern city a needed economic boost.

The little wooden figures stand anywhere from two inches to more than a foot tall. Depending on the whim of the woodcarver, they can portray a woodsman, a night watchman, or a colonel.

They are hawked from booths decked in pine boughs, lights, and snowmen by merchants with strong Sachsen accents. Other stalls carry edible delights: grilled sausages, fruit dipped in chocolate, or Krppelchen - fried dough balls doused with powdered sugar.

Welcome to Dresden's Striezelmarkt, which at 564 years is Germany's oldest Christmas market. It gets its name from stollen, a braided fruitcake that has been standard seasonal fare here for - literally - centuries.

For visitors, the market provides a glimpse into the past, while for the regional tourism industry, it is a much-needed boost to an otherwise sagging business.

According to Arndt Becker of Dresden's Agriculture and Marketing office, more than 500 merchants applied for the 230 available spaces. Most were from the state of Saxony, of which Dresden is the capital.

"That's a good sign of what kind of economic strength this market gives," he says, adding that the market even flourished under the former East German Communist regime, despite its religious and commercial trappings.

Londoners Ernest and Jenny Warburton, who visit Germany frequently, rated the Striezelmarkt the best they had seen, including the larger Munich and Nremberg markets. "It's less brutally commercial," says Mr. Warburton. "Very tasteful," adds his wife.

Wooden crafts and ornaments from Saxony's Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), southwest of Dresden, were first recorded at the Striezelmarkt in 1644. They were produced by area residents during winter months to supplement income when the main industry, mining, would go dormant.

This scenario repeated itself following the economic upheaval in eastern Germany after unification. When scores of Erzgebirge residents lost their jobs, many turned to woodcrafts to make a living.

Today, according to the Erzgebirge Woodworkers Union, there are 250 local woodcrafting firms employing nearly 5,000 people. This year, they expect to rack up sales of nearly $50 million.

Other traditions include gingerbread from the town of Pulsnitz east of Dresden, which, having patented the "Pulsnitz recipe" in 1558, styles itself as the gingerbread capital of the world. The Dresdner stollen cake traces its origins to 1471, when it was distributed to the poor and to local hospitals during Christmastide.

In a more modern tradition, city bakers fashioned a gigantic stollen cake measuring 1,998 centimeters long (about 65 feet) in correspondence to the year and weighing 7,276 pounds.

Between the cakes and the crafts, the market is a very big deal here, inspiring both pride and commerce in this economically struggling state, where unemployment hovers near 17 percent.

While there are no exact figures, Gerhard Schwabe, president of Dresden's Hotel and Restaurant Association, says "the Advent period is very important for Dresden's hotels."

Overall, tourism accounts for only 2.7 percent of Saxony's economy, compared with about 8 percent of the German economy. Local businesses and officials see tourism as the potential gift that keeps on giving, and hope that tourists, lured to the Striezelmarkt, will find other attractions to bring them back during the year.

Elke Meyer, a merchant from the Erzgebirge town of Seiffen, says the market offers her carved figures and wooden ornaments exposure that is otherwise hard to come by. "A lot of people come to us in Seiffen after seeing us here," she says.

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