Enjoy Some Old-World Holiday Fun at Sparta’s Award-Winning Outdoor Christmas Market
For three Fridays and Saturdays in December, the city of Sparta in west-central Wisconsin is transformed into an old-fashioned Christmas card. Visit at this time of year and you’ll find the city’s modest population (10,025 as of 2021) expanded with visitors from all over the state and beyond who come to take in the annual Kriskindlmarkt, a traditional, European-style outdoor holiday market.
On these weekends (as well as the final weekend of November), downtown Sparta is aglow with twinkling lights and elaborately decorated storefronts, filled with people wandering past rows of Bavarian-style huts stocked with holiday ornaments and other goods handmade by local artisans. Visitors sip from mugs of steaming gluhwein (mulled wine) as they shop the stalls, stopping for treats with old-country flair like Bavarian pretzels, roasted nuts, and schnitzel. Market-goers might pause to take in a holiday musical performance, listen to a storyteller recount a holiday tale, or gather around an open fire to make s’mores.
“It’s definitely more than just shopping—it’s a whole experience,” said Heidi Prestwood-Funkhouser of the Sparta Chamber of Commerce, who serves as coordinator of the event. “When you hear the Christmas music start playing and a light snow starts falling, it’s a Hallmark movie.”
An award-winning one, at that. Just this past spring, the Sparta Kriskindlmarkt received the State of Wisconsin Tourism Award for Innovation. The event has also been named the best Kriskindlmarkt in Wisconsin by a couple of different travel bloggers.
Despite its wide acclaim, however, the event remains a charmingly local affair. Artisans come from all over to sell their handmade goods, but a great many are from the area, some of them members of Oakdale Electric Cooperative as well as neighboring Vernon Electric and Riverland Energy Cooperatives. The food stands are mostly run by local non-profit organizations including the Rotary Club, Lions Club, Kiwanis, Community Hunger Solutions, Snowmobile Club of Monroe County, Friends of the Elroy-Sparta Trail, and the Sparta School District Backpack Program.
This sense of community is just one aspect of the event that keeps Oakdale Electric Cooperative IT Director Chad Schauf coming back year after year. A lifelong Sparta resident, Schauf said he loves seeing his hometown transformed every holiday season.
“Who hasn’t watched the movie ‘A Christmas Story,’ right? It’s my favorite Christmas movie and runs continuously at my house on Christmas Day,” Schauf said. “In the movie there are scenes of local parades, Christmas tree shopping, and large crowds. A local community gathering in the streets and really enjoying the season. The Sparta Kriskindlmarkt reminds me of this. People walking around everywhere, visiting shop after shop and booth after booth. Running into family members, old friends, and new friends. You never bump into someone who isn’t thoroughly enjoying themselves. Everyone is beaming with Christmas spirit!”
What is a Kriskindlmarkt?
A Kriskindlmarkt—or Christkindlmarkt—is a German tradition dating back to medieval times. Literally translated to Christ-Child Market, a Christkindlmarkt is an outdoor street market held during the four weeks of Advent, leading to Christmas. Historically, these markets were festive gatherings typically held in a town square, with food, Gluhwein (mulled wine), and seasonal items like nativity scenes sold from open-air stalls. In many German-speaking communities, townspeople kicked off Christkindlmarkt by welcoming the Christkind (Christ child), a role portrayed by a local child.
These traditional outdoor markets evolved over time and are now commonly held throughout Europe. The tradition is also practiced in the United States. However, Germany still reigns supreme when it comes to the Christkindlmarkt. The country hosts about 2,500 to 3,000 holiday markets each year and is credited with several Christkindlmarkt records:
• City with the most Christmas markets: Berlin, with about 80 markets
• City whose market is generally considered to be most well-known: Nuremburg
• City with what is considered to be one of the first—if not the first—genuine Christmas markets in the world: Dresden
Source: National Geographic Magazine
Variety of Vendors
Now in its ninth year, the Sparta Kriskindlmarkt keeps changing and growing. This year’s event will feature 27 vendor huts in three clusters in the downtown area: Mueller Square, Creekside Village, and—new this year—Love Lock Village.
These chalet-like huts house a rotation of handcrafted items for sale. Vendors change from week to week, and even day to day, so visitors who stroll through the Kriskindlmarkt multiple times in a season will find something different each time. There are knitted and crocheted pieces, home décor, candles, woodwork and metal arts, as well as some imported German Christmas ornaments.
“We also have a lot of groups that make candies and chocolates, we have someone who makes cotton candy, another lady sells hand-printed paper and she writes books and sells her books,” Prestwood-Funkhouser added. “We have another lady who makes pillows and quilts and her own stuffed animals. What you’ll see just depends on what day you’re there.”
Visitors will also find plenty of food and spirits to sustain them while shopping. A new amenity added to the grounds this year is the Bier Hausl, where guests can pick up beer and wine. There’s also hot cider, hot cocoa, and coffee to sip while wandering around the market grounds.
At the octagon-shaped Sausage Hut—just added to the Creekside area of the market last year—locally produced German-style sausages are served up piping hot. Visitors can also warm up with cheese curds, hearty soup, and freshly made crepes.
Kriskindlmarkt also features a full schedule of holiday entertainment throughout its four-week run. The first weekend, which this year was November 24 and 25, serves as a grand kick-off to the holiday season, with corresponding holiday events including a Santa Scamper fun run, an evening parade, an official lighting ceremony at Evans-Bosshard Park, and an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Over the following three weekends, Kriskindlmarkt will offer additional entertainment including musical performances, storytelling, and a chainsaw-carving demonstration. Check the Kriskindlmarkt Facebook page for updated schedules, as well as updated lists of vendors for each day of the market.
Or, just stop by and enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas. Regardless of what’s on the schedule, Sparta’s Kriskindlmarkt will offer a total holiday immersion that’s sure to fill you with good cheer.—Mary Erickson (Photos courtesy of Sparta Chamber of Commerce)