The smell of pine and incense drifts from kiosks filled with colorful handicrafts along tree-lined allées and around a lively skating rink. Appreciative spectators in heavy sweaters take a break from shopping to sip hot cider under heating lamps at an outdoor cafe. all beneath a massive evergreen festooned with lights.
It’s a classic European Christmas market, but it’s in the middle of Manhattan, where Bryant Park has been dressed up for the holidays — an oasis amid the city’s towering skyscrapers and, at one end, the imposing New York Public Library.
Similar scenes are sprouting in destinations everywhere as shoppers hunger for what they think Christmas is supposed to look like, and for unique gifts they can’t find online or at the mall. Manhattan holiday markets like this one also operate in Union Square, Columbus Circle, and Grand Central Station.
“There are always products offered where people say to me, ‘I never saw anything like that,’ ” said Dan Biederman, the native Bostonian whose Biederman Redevelopment Ventures creates, redevelops, and runs parks and projects, including Bryant Park’s Winter Village, and which is looking at opening similar holiday markets in warmer-weather climes such as Greensboro, N.C., and Dallas. “I think it’s about providing a fresh new experience.”
Burgeoning numbers of other travelers are going right to the source — the original Christmas markets of Northern Europe where, for them, it’s a fresh but very old experience — drawn by low off-season rates. In the tiny town of Seiffen, Germany, population about 2,000, a quarter of a million people come at Christmas.
Decorated, brightly lighted, and sometimes dusted with snow, European Christmas markets “are beautiful. They’re festive. You can eat a lot at them. You can come home without even buying any gifts and still have a great experience,” said Marjorie R. Williams of Cambridge, co-author of “Markets of Paris’’ and the forthcoming “Markets of Provence.”
“It’s very atmospheric,” Williams said. “You can meet the artist. You can meet the craftsperson. You’ve got the twinkling lights, the Christmas music, the smells of the mulled wine and of the gingerbread. So, at the sensory level, it’s very rich. Who wouldn’t want to jump on a plane for that?”
River cruises have become among the most popular ways to visit European Christmas markets, on ships also decked for the holidays. Viking Cruises has nearly doubled its number of Christmas departures since 2012, to 62 this winter. Tauck’s winter river cruises to Christmas markets along the Rhine and Danube are up since 2010 from four trips per year to 10. Avalon Waterways plans seven Christmas-themed winter trips to Europe next year, twice as many as it had five years ago. Pawtucket, R.I.-based Collette Travel is offering holiday tours to New York, London, and continental Europe. Even Adventures by Disney is getting in on the action, with two holiday river cruises scheduled for next year that will stop at Christmas markets in Central Europe.
“Even the most ‘bah-humbuggiest’ of souls would be hard-pressed to walk away from a Christmas market without a solid dose of seasonal good cheer,” enthused Heather Killingbeck, director of program development at Adventures by Disney.
Judging from the traffic at the British-based international online Christmas markets directory christmasmarkets.com, Ebenezer Scrooge is trailing badly. The site reports more than a million visitors a month searching out Christmas markets, a big jump over last year; even as early as August, the number was up 14 percent.
Some hotel operators are capitalizing on this too. The Aria Hotel Budapest, for instance, offers holiday shopping packages including private tours of the city’s sprawling Christmas markets in St. Stephan’s and Erzsébet squares, plus Christmas-themed spa treatments. Alumni and professional organizations are pitching European Christmas market tours, and selling them out.
One reason is low prices. Viking’s winter cruises cost about 30 percent less than its summer ones; Trafalgar’s three European Christmas market packages, 40 percent less. Add to that the strong dollar, said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar USA, and US visitors have “more money in their wallets to splurge on shopping, decadent meals, and extra sightseeing.”
All with smaller crowds and fewer lines, and friendlier locals liberated from the armies of warm-weather tourists.
“By traveling during the off season, visitors avoid the major crowds found during peak travel times,” said Heidi Durflinger, president of Cambridge-based Go Ahead Tours, which runs Christmas market tours to Germany, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.
The people freest to travel between Thanksgiving and Christmas, meanwhile — retirees who aren’t tied down by end-of-year deadlines, office parties, and school pageants — “have always had a passion for a traditional Christmas,” said Mike Dowd, CEO of Grand Circle Cruise Line, whose number of passengers on Christmas market tours is up about 10 percent this year.
Even they prefer condensed itineraries at the holidays, however, Dowd said, and Grand Circle’s winter trips are typically limited to between eight and 12 days — shorter than in the summers.
“At this time of year folks have lots of obligations. It’s harder to get away for two or three weeks because of the holiday and family commitments,” Dowd said.
But the trend is not being driven only by retired boomers. America’s 75 million millennials, and their $63 billion in holiday buying power, want more experience-related purchases, and are surprisingly unmoved by the allure of online shopping. More than half of their holiday spending this year will go toward such things as travel and entertainment, versus 39 percent for older shoppers, PricewaterhouseCoopers projects, and they rank online shopping lower than the in-person kind. And high-income consumers of all ages (PriceWaterhouse calls them “selectives”) are searching for distinctive gifts.
“The Christmas shopping experience today is you go on Amazon and spend your money on Cyber Monday,” said Grand Circle’s Dowd. “Our travelers relish the traditional markets, the traditional Christmas.”
That’s because, “When you visit a Christmas market, you experience local artisan crafts. When you’re in Italy, you’re walking past fountains that were sculpted by Bernini. You smell roasted chestnuts. You have musicians playing music. Naples is famous for its mangers. They’re artworks in themselves,” said Leo Locke, president of Boston’s Donna Franca Tours. “It feels more like Christmas than going to the Chestnut Hill mall.”
And for people who don’t want to fly to Europe to go shopping, continental-style markets continue to emerge.
“It really is an interesting phenomenon,” said Carolin Lusby, assistant professor of hospitality at Florida International University, who was born in Germany. “I think it’s really more about connecting to the Old World. It’s the same reason that you see Oktoberfest becoming popular here, and the farmers’ markets becoming popular: It’s counteracting what we see in our culture every day: the commercialism, the fast pace, buying online. People are trying to get back into the spirit of Christmas.”Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.