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German Market Lights Up Chicago’s Daley Center

The smell of spiced wine and authentic German beer filled the Lufthansa Festival Tent at the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza Wednesday. Vendor Andrea Dakay greeted her customers with smiles and free samples of her specialty drinks explaining the difference while they tasted. She patiently helped them pronounce the German drinks on the signs behind her and gave phonics lessons when needed.

“In German you pronounce the second vowel first,” Dakay said. “We give German lessons here too.”

Dakay was one of many who continued to venture back to Daley Plaza every year for this German-inspired marketplace. She has been a vendor at the market for seven years and said a relative convinced her to vend in 2006, but the atmosphere has kept her coming back every years since.

“It’s fun,” Dakay said. “One of its appeals is that it’s quaint. It’s great for families.”

Dakay said the authenticity of the market is what makes people continue to come back year after year as she rang a cow bell after being tipped.

“It’s a German tradition,” Dakay explained.

Piero Pessagno of Pallay Craft has been a vendor at Christkindlmarket Chicago for 10 consecutive years.
Piero Pessagno of Pallay Craft has been a vendor at Christkindlmarket Chicago for 10 consecutive years. Photo by Sydney Lawson

The Christkindlmarket has been a fixture in the Chicago holiday framework for the past 17 years. The first one was held at Pioneer Court in 1996 with hopes of bringing German and European traditions to Chicago. The following year Mayor Richard M. Daley offered the Daley Plaza as the site for the event.

Maren Biester, German American Services, Inc. vice president and manager, said the market has a very authentic feel and is the closest replica of a German or European experience you’ll have in Chicago.

“We’re not like other shops,” Biester said. “The atmosphere, smell, people, food, keep families coming back every year. We’re not replaceable.”

Dakay said because the market is fashioned after the most famous German Christkindlmarket in Nuremberg, it provides a unique experience to attendees they could only otherwise receive by going to Europe.

“The spiced wine is from Nuremberg,” Biester said.

Chicago local Jane Flint said she and her family have been attending the market for the past 6 years.

“The wine and food keep us coming back,” Flint said.

The event garners special members for her and her family, Flint said. The family originally began coming to the market after seeing an advertisement on television, but kept coming back for the experience.

This year’s festival will be open from Nov. 26  to Dec. 24 with hours of operation from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. —Christa Smith

Along a table near the Clark Street entrance of the Christkindlmarket stood Dave Thornberry and Steve Sedwick. Both visitors from northern Indiana sipped on the market’s imported German beers. Thornberry swigged his Bitburger light beer, and Sedwick drank a dark lager. They enjoyed their second beer before exploring the other offerings at the market.

“I like walking around,” Thornberry said. “And of course, the beer.”

Thornberry said it is hard to find a decent, imported German beer. It was the first thing they bought. Both men carpooled from Cedar Lake, Ind., and spent the day in the city.

The Christkindlmarket draws a variety of visitors every year and already had lines prior to opening for the day. Students on field trips gathered in front of the large Christmas tree near Santa’s house, while others wandered with their families, browsing the variety of handcrafted ornaments and clothing items. Thornberry and Sedwick decided to stop and grab their beers while their friends browsed one of the German candy shops.

“This is our second year coming,” Sedwick said.

On the opposite side of the market near a food stand, Jane and Kyle Knupp sipped on hot chocolate in small white foam cups topped with whipped cream. They separated briefly from their group to grab something warm to drink. Kyle Knupp was on a field trip with his school’s German club. Visiting from Bartlett, Ill., Janet Knupp joined her son on the trip as chaperone.

“It’s a nice time for mom and son to spend together,” Janet Knupp said.

Collaboration of videos from Christkindlmarket
Click on this image for videos from the market.

Knupp said she had heard about the market years ago when she worked downtown. She said she had been to Germany before and that the shops in the market were similar to the shops she saw in Munich. She said she hopes to keep coming to the market with her son for as long as she can because he will be going away to college in two years.

“You know you see every generation,” Knupp said. “Grandmas and grandpas, children and strollers. It’s a great tradition.”

Lucille Kurey was standing with her friend and enjoying Gluehwein, a German spiced wine, in the commemorative Christkindlmarket blue mugs. Kurey had never been before and wanted to warm up before they explored the rest of the market.

“I heard about it I think on WGN radio,” Kurey said. “We were actually just going to Macy’s.”

Kurey drove from Park Ridge, Ill., with her friend to do some shopping. She said she already plans to come back next year.

Glenn Sloan from Detroit was waiting patiently for his daughter and grandson with whom he was visiting.

“I’ve been coming here the past three or four years,” Sloan said.

Sloan said he enjoys the variety of the German food and the market and favors the streusels, a German pastry. — Veronica Rios

At 11 a.m. the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza was crawling with people who wanted to experience this holiday tradition, and even the pigeons showed up in packs.

But Chicagoans aren’t the only ones who enjoy this annual market; people come from all over the Midwest to experience it.

On Wednesday, many schools from Illinois and Wisconsin came to the market on field trips. Schools’ German classes came to experience German culture first hand.

“I like all the German culture here,” said Rebecca Robinson, a freshman at West Allis Nathan Hale High Schoolwho takes German.

Robinson said her school takes a field trip to the market each year from Wisconsin and said her favorite part of the market was the variety of food.

West Allis Nathan Hale High School wasn’t the only school that came; some students from Bartlett High School also came.

Anna Garcia, a senior at Bartlett, said that she comes to the market every year with her German class. She also said that there are more food vendors this year.

Dahlia Sierra, also a senior at Bartlett High School, said that she’s been taking German for three years and coming to the Christkindlmarket gives her a sense of the culture. Although she’s supposed to talk in German while she’s there, she said she doesn’t speak it much.

“It’s weird going up to people speaking German,” she said.

Ashley Linton, an eighth grader from St. Catherine’s High School said, “It’s fun that there’s no school.” –Sheila Headspeth

The nearly 20-year-old Christkindlmarket is always attracting new crowds, but many of the booths have become institutions as old as the celebration itself.

Transposed from a Nuremberg, Germany custom more than 500-years-old, Chicago’s Christkindlmarket is a vibrant celebration of international tradition with venders hailing from countries such as Europe, Central and South America, along with outliers from the United States and Canada.

Originally conceived back in 1995 as an opportunity to endorse trade between the United States and Germany, the festival branched out immediately to bring in venders from locations like Ecuador. Vendors are always able to submit a proposal for inclusion in the Christkindlmarket, but priority goes to European vendors and returning vendors.

 Otabalo Inka was one of these veteran shops, an 18-year-old Christkindlmarket vendor who specializes in handmade Ecuadorian fare.

“My grandpa used to go to different parts all over the world, and Ecuador became one of his major locations,” Magte Pineda said. Pineda’s parents own the shop, though she was the only one working the day.

 “It gets harder every year,” she said. “It becomes more expensive to be accepted.” Pineda believes the main reason they’ve held their precious real estate for so long is their deep-rooted history with the Christkindlmarket.

 “We always go to our vendors we’ve had from the beginning first, but then new vendors need to contact us and pitch us,” said Sonja Martinez, the manager of German American Services, Inc, the group who oversees the Christkindlmarket. “They tell us their product and then we decide if it’s a good fit for the Christkindlmarket. We want to make sure it’s not just something someone is going to be able to find at Macy’s.”

Dresden, Germany-based Hoffman Company has been a regular for more than a decade. “It’s expensive, but we keep coming back,” said Nicole Lorenc, the owner of Hoffman Company, which concentrate in intricate wood art. Lorenc was approached by the German American Commerce as opposed to pitching as most non-German shops are required to do.

Jeff Golden and Julie Dennis’ booth featuring their plush products “Buddies” and “Bearhands” are one of those lucky few chosen for this year’s market. Only in its fourth year at Christkindlmarket, Golden and Dennis’ “Buddies and Bearhands” are featured in various national markets including three different New York shows this year. — Michael Snydel

Kassie Smelser, a senior German student at Northridge High School in Middlebury, Ind. waits in line for traditional hot chocolate at Chicago's Christkindlmarket. Image by Danielle Dwyer
Kassie Smelser, a senior German student at Northridge High School in Middlebury, Ind., waits in line for traditional hot chocolate at Chicago’s Christkindlmarket. Photo by Danielle Dwyer

Betty Thornson shared laughs and bratwursts with friends as she watched various high school students make their way from booth to booth at Chicago’s 18th Annual Christkindlmarket.

 Although Thornson, a Wisconsin native, has been coming to the Christkindlmarket since 2006 to enjoy the food and collect the traditional mini market mugs, she has another reason for attending.

“I really enjoy seeing the students using this as a learning tool,” Thornson said. “It’s a good opportunity to get out and really see other people doing things from their culture.”

 While many Chicagoans and city visitors have joined in on the holiday tradition to experience the food, drinks, festivities and hand-made ornaments, multiple schools turn the market into a classroom.

One of those, Bartlett High School from Chicago’s Northwest suburbs, has been bringing about 100 students from the German class to the market for the past 10 years.

 “We bring the students down for the day to experience the market, and then they’ll talk about culture and traditions in class tomorrow,” said Jenny Vierneisel, an English teacher who was chaperoning the trip.

Although this is Vierneisel’s first time chaperoning the trip, she has been to Germany and even to Kathe Wohlfahrt, which is a market booth that features hand-crafted heirlooms, gifts and ornaments and said this opportunity is beneficial for her students to experience multiple cultural offerings – food, language and traditional products like hand-made ornaments.

“This is a much smaller scale but a lot of the products and goods are the same,” Vierneisel said. “So this is a really great way to give that experience to these students at a local level.”

 And Bartlett sophomores Andrew Salamando and Matt Edmier agreed that it helps enhance what they’ve learned in class.

 “I think it helps because we get to try different foods, and we get to see the culture in person,” Salamando said. “We not only get to try speaking the language with some of the workers, but then we’ll get to talk about it in class tomorrow and use it in the future.”

 And the idea of education doesn’t stay within state lines as Northridge High School German students and faculty members made the two-hour drive across the border to spend the day at the market.

 Similar to Bartlett’s Salamando and Edmier, who said their teachers recommended they visit a variety of food and decoration booths, Northridge sophomore Brenna Butler said her teacher gave them a scavenger hunt to test their skills.

“We have to use our German when buying things,” Butler said. “We also have to go to different booths and find cultural traditions like the pickle ornament.”

The market idea adopted from the annual Nuremberg open-air festival honors the German Santa Claus, “Christkind.”  It also offers unique cultural traditions that were brought to Chicago since its opening year in 1996. One of the traditions – the pickle ornament – is something German parents put on the tree and the first of their children to find it on Christmas gets an additional gift.

While fellow Northridge sophomore Christine Wysong said she has friends in her German class whose families have started doing the pickle ornament tradition, senior Patricia Stewart sees a holistic affect the market can have on the American culture.

“As Americans we’re so centered on our own cultures, and it’s nice to have exposure to others right here in Chicago,” Stewart said.

 While Stewart, Wysong and Butler made their ways to the hot chocolate booth, Northridge junior Dalen Miller emerged from the Kathe Wohlfahrt booth with a German soda in hand. He too said this day adds so much to his education.

 “It’s closer to the real thing than school is,” Miller said. “I enjoy the thought of getting to try their food because we speak [German] in class and learn about it. But to taste it and see them make it, that’s something special you won’t find in our classroom.”

 As Miller and Stewart said the experiences from the market will expand into their futures, Thornson said she wants the “other-culture concept” to impact beyond Chicago.

“As much as I love seeing the local students embrace the culture, I think the more we understand each other the more connected we can stay across the board,” Thornson said. –Danielle Dwyer

Every week, Marlena Johnson, a private lawyer in downtown Chicago, comes to the Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza for exactly one thing.

 She bypassed the ornaments, the clocks and the Christmas trees. But she will not go back to work without a bratwurst or potato pancake. She’s been doing this for at least eight years, she said.

 “They are that good,” she said of the bratwurst in her hand. “Historically they are. I’m hoping this one is, too.”

 She is not the only one who makes the Christkindlmarket an annual tradition.

 People were already lining up at the Sweet Castle vendor before the Christkindlmarket even opened at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning.

 At least 30 people waited in line for kettle corn, cotton candy and ginger bread.

 Damie Oliver and her family discovered the market before heading off to see the Broadway show “Wicked” later in the afternoon.

Jeanne VerHag and Deb Pyle made a special day trip to the market from Michigan City. This year is their fourth or fifth year visiting the German festival because they consider themselves “just German fans.”

VerHag said she visited Germany a couple times back in 1996 and 1999, and Pyle said she went in 1984.

VerHag said the European country has strictly Christmas towns, so part of the reason they enjoy the Christkindlmarket so much is the nostalgia they feel for the real thing.

“We relive the trip,” Pyle said.

The pair already had purchased an ornament, which they get every year. They also enjoyed a cup of imported Glühwein that typically comes in a take home boot mug. This year the spiced wine came in a small blue mug.

“We have a boot collection but we’ll have to start a new one,” VerHag said. –Jessica Wenck

Judie Schweismann leisurely walked around Chicago’s Daley Plaza while taking in the aroma of strudel and warm German beer, making her “take deeper breaths than normal.”

“I visit the market every year hoping that I will bump into a friend of mine that I met in Nuremberg 20 years ago; this reminds me of my time there,” said Schweismann, of Wicker Park.

Christkindlmarket, an annual open event where businesses set up booths that resemble European shops and sell holiday themed goods, gives residents a glimpse of a traditional European village.

“It looks a lot like it,” Schweismann said of the wood paneled booths that line the market.

Rich Schmidt, owner of Helmut Strudel, said that he has been serving traditional Austrian strudel for 16 years but has found a way to appeal to both the traditionalists and newcomers.

“We have the apple, cherry, cheese and…wait for it…Nutella-flavored strudel,” Schmidt said.

He said that his customers, both of retirement age and high schoolers, flock to his booth because of the sweet treats and the authentic European method that he uses.

“I make these babies out of my own oven at home, just like my grandma used to,” he said.

Lincoln Park resident, Kelly Smith said that she likes to take her daughter to the market to learn about Eastern Europe’s equivalent to Santa Claus, Christkind.

Smith previously lived in Germany for a few years while her military husband served his time. Her daughter was born there.

“It reminds my baby of home,” Smith said.

Schweismann said that she will continue to come to the market even if she doesn’t find her friend this year.

“Christmas lives here,” she said. –Jasmine Browley

Ewa Arreola’s Polish Handcrafts Collection does a brisk business every year at the German Christkindlmarket in Chicago.

Arreola, a Poland native, designs the hand-made stoneware collection and imports the pottery from Poland. This is the collection’s fourth year at the market.

Leticia Hernandez, an employee of the company, said she is amazed of how popular the pottery is in Chicago.

“We have a variety of customers,” Hernandez, 58, said. “Most of the customers are Polish.”

This is Hernandez’s first year working the booth at the Christkindlmarket. According to Hernandez, the collection has been selling well because Chicago has a large Polish community.

“We are located in California,” Hernandez said. “ Polish pottery is not as popular in California as it is here in Chicago. When Ewa has shows in Arlington, Texas, she said there’s always a large turnout because there are large Polish communities located there.

The pottery collection’s price range is $13 up to $130. Teapots, cheeseboards, bowls and butter dishes are the most popular items of the collection during the holidays.

Amy Switzel, a mother of two, is a loyal customer of the collection who purchased a gravy bowl and a cheeseboard.

“I just fell in love with all the pieces,” Switzel said. “I think I have almost every piece. Every holiday, I receive a lot of compliments on my dishes. It’s such a good quality of pottery.”

According to Hernandez, the collection has been receiving positive feedback from the market’s attendees.

“They come to the booth and are in awe,” Hernandez said. “Customers love it. They come and say how beautiful it is or say how pretty. It’s sort of like a jewelry product. It’s not fragile. The pottery is resistant to chips and breakage.”

Christopher Maxston, a longtime shopper at the market, came to purchase pottery with his wife.

“I have friends who have purchased pottery from this collection and always say how much they love it,” Maxston said. “I have pretty clumsy friends, so when I see how their bowls were still in good shape after being dropped so many times, I decided to check it out and purchase some myself.

With a only a few more weeks left before the Christkindlmarket closes Dec. 24, the vendor’s employees make sure they have time to enjoy themselves while selling the products.

“We love it out here,” Hernandez said. “We have been receiving steady flow ever since the Christmas tree lighting. We are just out here enjoying ourselves.”  –Brittany Delk   

A group of around 120 students from a German class at Barlett High School visited the Christkindlmarket in Chicago to learn about this culture since most of the foods are traditionally from Germany.

The students traveled to Chicago about 50 minutes in the bus to get there.

With this trip, students get the opportunity to practice skills with numerous German-speaking vendors and also, to experience authentic German traditions without having to travel any farther than the city of Chicago.

The market consists of 56 booths of tasty food and beverages, gifts and hand-made specialty items.

The teacher “likes the students to learn as if they go to other countries,” said senior student Anna Ramos. “So on that way we know what to order and what the food has.”

Ramos has learned that most of the similarly-named food has the same ingredients. She said she has also learned what it is like to be in Germany because of the culture, entertainment, people and food.

The Christmas houses in the market are part of the German culture.

“This is my fourth time coming here and I love it,” Ramos said.

Potatoes pancakes are very popular. Ramos and Esmeralda Perez, a sophomore, both said they like them.

“I just ate pancakes,” Perez said. “ I love them, it’s rare to see pancakes like these ones in other places.”

The pancakes taste like hash browns with a unique flavor, and on the side it comes with applesauce or sour cream.

Janese Pappas has being teaching German at the school for nine years and had make this trip for eight years.

She wants them “to get a small taste of Gemany,” Pappas said. –Sylvia Oben

Amber Bachand has attended Christkindl every year. This year, Bachand came out with her two-year-old daughter.

“We’re building Christmas memories,” Bachand said as she snacked on a potato pancake.  “She’s only going to be two once, so I took off to create a tradition.”

Pamela Heady has worked at the market for nine years selling Glühwein, a German wine served during the holiday. Heady said the Glühwein was specially made for the Christkindlmarket and is an exact replica of the wine sold during Christkindl in Germany.

“Lots of care and time was put into making this,” Heady said as she unpacked boxes of wine. “There’s a lot of people who come here to get a taste of Germany.”

Heady said the Schaumburg-based business makes good profit by participating in the market. Although the profit is good, Heady said she isn’t concerned about the money, but keeping the German tradition alive.

Lois Browning has been attending the Christkindlmarket since 2005, she said. She came to enjoy the Christmas festivities with her family before she leaves the city tomorrow.

“This event is very neat,” Browning said, referring to the different vendors, food and events.

This was Janet Byrne’s first time at the market. Byrne said she stumbled across the market after visiting the Walnut Room at Macy’s.

“It’s very cute, and the food smells good,” Byrne said while clutching a red Macy’s bag.

The German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, Inc. will collaborate with the  Christkindlmarket to host the annual Children’s Lantern Parade at 7 p.m. tonight. — Ke’yanna Johnson 

Tim Vetang a half German, half Irish vendor who sells handcrafted Irish products at the Christkindlmarket Chicago. Image by Danielle Dwyer
Tim Vetang a half-German, half-Irish vendor who sells handcrafted Irish products at the Christkindlmarket Chicago. Photo by Sydney Lawson

Although it is a German-American market, Christkindlmarket Chicago, an annual outdoor holiday market, is really a taste of countries from around the world.

The smell of grilled bratwursts and cinnamon toasted almonds filled the air on Wednesday at the Daley Plaza, the market’s downtown location.

In the fast-beating heart of downtown, tourists and residents sipped beer and ate jumbo pretzels as they enjoyed the unusually warm December day.

Walking through the market and talking to vendors is a passport to the world and you can escape to on a 30-minute lunch break.

Cutting up apple strudel like a samurai, Rich Schmidt boxed up and dished out the tasty treat to anxious customers.  It was Schmidt’s fifth year working at the market.  He is of German descent and said he loves working here because of all the people from around the world.

“By the time you leave you pick up three or four languages,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt is a furniture maker and has a packaging business with his father.  He said when Christkindlmarket started around 16 years ago, it was mostly German but now is very diverse.

Piero Passagno from Lima, Peru, said he fell in love with Chicago.  He sells ethnic, hand-made hats and bracelets.  It is his 10th consecutive year selling his goods at Christkindlmarket.

As he picked up a vibrantly colored yarn hat, Passagno said very poor people in Lima made many of the items.  They move from the Sierra, the mountain region in Peru, to the coast to try to make more money where there are more opportunities.

Seeing the twinkle in Passagno’s eye and bright colors of his hometown, made the unseasonably warm day even warmer.  Next was a trip to Ireland.

Tim Vetang, 59, who is half Irish and German, sells hand-crafted Irish products such as gloves and hats.  “Things to keep warm in the Chicago winter,” Vetang said.

Vetang is in the wholesale business and travels the country selling Irish products to Celtic stores.  He has been to Ireland and said for anyone that has been to Europe, Christkindlmarket is very close to the feel of an outdoor European market especially with all of the different ethnic groups.   — Sydney R. Lawson

Bernd Ferenbach, a Pennsylvania clock and gift maker, said he noticed something missing from the Christkindlmarket in Chicago.

The annual market had no souvenir holiday market with the name of the German Christmas festival. So he made one.

Now the Black Forest Clocks and Gifts sells ornaments at the market.

Keith Brintzenhoff, 68, the company’s Christkindlmarket sale representative, said the first hand-painted ornament was created more than three years ago.

“You can’t live without having one of the first ornaments on your Christmas tree,” Brintzenhoff said.

German tourists and Americans find this festival to be home away from home. They’re able to purchase all kinds of trinkets from the festival that they would find in Germany.

Nikky Hasenberg, 44, teacher at Larkin High School, said she has enjoyed bringing her three sons to this festival for the past two years because it gives them a since of their German history.

As customers stopped by to greet and buy products from Brintzenhoff, he responded in German and English, giving them the history of each product.

Brintzenhoff said the best selling products are ornaments, hats, scarves, pens and some of the glass boots. The store and vendor booths primarily sell 75 different kinds of steins, containers for beers and ornaments.

One of the most memorable experiences over the years while selling products from the vendor booth is getting German tourists to say, “Oh just like in Germany,” Brintzenhoff said, referring to the ornaments. — Corita E. Mitchell

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