The size of the Viennese Christmas markets is not what makes them exceptional. If that was so, any shopping center with a half-a-theme could compete. It’s the atmosphere and the quality of the goods that inspired global admiration for this seasonal Austrian wonder.

My first glimpse of this occurred early in the morning, in front of Schönbrunn Palace. The stalls were just opening and I was astounded to see not cheaply-made, imported products or plastic playthings promoting media, but honest wood and metal toys like the ones in movies, story books, and old cartoons. Many of the items were authentically Austrian and handmade. Candles from local beeswax, decorations by Viennese craftspeople, and food from village bakeries.

Beyond these items, the booth themselves were works of Christmas art. I never thought the sheer amount of holiday atmosphere present in my favorite movies could truly come to life. Yet, here, especially after dark, the markets were alive with glittering ornaments, ethereal lights, and the deep warm hues of the season. One could imagine they stood just outside of Santa’s workshop in a crowd of busy tinkerers, instead of in one of Europe’s great cities amid tourists and shopkeepers.

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