By Andrea Vera
A beloved German holiday tradition, Christkindlmarket, will return to Chicago this year and celebrate its 25th anniversary after being cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Modeled after the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg, it’s a one-of-a-kind outdoor Christmas market with its origins in the 16th century.
Germans began to immigrate to rapidly growing Midwestern cities like Chicago and Milwaukee in the second half of the 19th century, according to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. With them, they brought a shared value for German language and culture.
The Chicago Historical Society reports that by 1930, nearly 5.9 million Germans had immigrated to the United States, and networks of German organizations began forming—a way in which immigrants both preserved and celebrated their identities.
The business-oriented German American Chamber of Commerce (GACC) of the Midwest Inc. carries out similar efforts to this day.
A subsidiary of GACC Midwest, German American Events, has hosted Chicago’s Christkindlmarket since 1996.
“The GACC called the market into life because it was a transatlantic opportunity for small German companies to be able to have a platform here in the United States to present their consumer wares to the American public” said Maren Biester Priebe, the CEO of German American Events.
It has since grown in popularity, spreading to other locations in the city and in Wisconsin.
Originally located at Pioneer Court along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the market now takes place at Daley Plaza. An additional location was added outside of Wrigley Field, and both opened daily this season beginning Nov. 19.
Having worked for German American Events for 15 years, during which time she put on 16 markets, Biester Priebe noticed that the market had become an institution in Chicago.
In its off-season last year, Christkindlmarket offered a virtual market that will be available as an at-home alternative again this year.
Visitors will be greeted by the warm lights of vendors’ huts, the sound of festive music and the spiced smell of gluhwein, a mulled wine.
Vendors’ huts are constructed from wood and decorated with red and white stripes in the traditional style of the Nuremberg market.
Biester Priebe, who was born in Germany, said, “It’s like a little piece of home in the downtown area.”
“For us Germans, the holidays are very important because we have a lot of traditions that are tied to it,” she added.
International vendors from Germany and local vendors from Chicago sell intricately decorated ornaments and traditional gifts.
“We have a very eclectic group of vendors from around the world represented because that’s what you’re going to see at many markets throughout Germany and German-speaking countries,” Biester Priebe said.
There are also a variety of treats ranging from roasted nuts to bratwursts and freshly baked pretzels.
“For us it’s also being able to represent a little bit of an intercultural journey with the food that we serve at the market. We have over 70 different food items that are pretty accurate in taste when it comes to how you’ll experience it back in Germany,” Biester Priebe said.
Chicago’s Christkindlmarket will comply with state and city regulations pertaining to pandemic safety, she said, and all staff must be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19.
Biester Priebe said, “Our littlest guests are just now starting to get approved for vaccination, so we want to make sure that everybody is protected as much as possible. We are recommending that everybody wear masks, especially indoors in our walk-in cabins.”
While Chicago locals and tourists can visit this popular winter attraction once more, their Milwaukee counterparts must wait another year.
The German market debuted there in 2018. After two successful runs, Christkindlmarket was cancelled in 2020, as it had been in Chicago.
Milwaukee won’t be hosting the market again this year, but not due to COVID-19 concerns as some prospective visitors might think. At least not directly.
Rather, there is a lack of vendors interested in taking part this year, despite the city’s campaign efforts in conjunction with the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team.
Without vendors, it’s impossible to host Christkindlmarket.
“A lot of events have been lacking in participation of vendors,” Biester Priebe noted.
She also explained that the past year has been a struggle both financially and in terms of health for many of the market’s vendors, posing challenges for their return.
Kate Bleeker, the director of operations for Christkindlmarket, told Eater Chicago, “Last year with all the cancellations, it was hard on all the vendors.”
Biester Priebe added, “Our vendors are artists. They are artisans, small businesses. For them, this is their lifeblood.”
Biester Priebe said that the GACC did not want to host Christkindlmarket in Milwaukee if it wouldn’t live up to the atmosphere promised.
“You’re not doing justice to all those who would like to visit,” she said.
Hosting the market this year would have resulted in criticism of the authenticity of the Christkindlmarket experience, Biester Priebe said.
That could ultimately harm the reputation and business of vendors, and that was damage that she and her team were not willing to cause.
The fact that the Milwaukee market is only a few years old also means that it doesn’t yet have an established clientele or a consistent vendor pool, unlike Chicago where recruiting is not a problem, Biester Priebe said.
“When we start a new location, we usually start with the space that we have available, and our intent is to try to grow the numbers so that it becomes more attractive over time and bigger,” she said.
COVID-19 took away that chance for growth, but that’s not to say that the market won’t return in the future, she said.
“There was never any question of not coming back,” Bleeker said.