For Lars Oltmanns, being German in Atlanta hasn’t been too difficult over the past decade: there’s a strong community of expats and even schools where kids can learn their parents’ native tongue. German food is decently accessible, and it’s pretty easy to be an impactful ambassador of your country.
“You’re even more German in a foreign country, because you want to represent your country, and you bring some of the culture with you,” Mr. Oltmanns told Global Atlanta.
But for the entrepreneur who founded Halo Food Connect to import specialty foods from Germany and elsewhere, there was one area where Atlanta’s community lagged other U.S. cities like Chicago: an authentic German Christmas market.
Mr. Oltmanns is part of a team from Atlanta’s German-American Cultural Foundation fixing that important cultural deficit this year.
The fruit of their labor is the inaugural Atlanta Christkindl Market, an assemblage of garland-draped wooden booths with peppermint-colored roofs creating a German village amid the shopping hullaballoo of Atlantic Station.
Situated around the Christmas tree in the central plaza, the market opened Dec. 2 with a ceremony that went off well despite being a dreary, rain-soaked Friday.
Visitors to the inaugural market, which lasts through Christmas Eve, can taste German mulled wine (glühwein), buy handmade wooden toys, ornaments and wreaths and sample specialties from baked goods to bratwurst, imported from Germany and served up by volunteers.
While it does incorporate a few special events and performances, the market mainly wants to mimic the more low-key, family atmosphere that graces town squares throughout Germany and other cities of German-speaking Europe (and even a few other countries) this time of year.
“You know that German song, ‘Silent Night’?” Mr. Oltmanns said while taking a break from buttoning up final arrangements for the booths with the event company. “(A Christkindl market) is a quiet gathering where people are enjoying the atmosphere. You want people to talk. You don’t come to listen to a band and leave.”
That active, engaged posture is one thing that sets a Christkindl market apart, says Jürgen Gentzke, a regional vice president at German-based logistics provider Kuehne & Nagel and chairman of the cultural foundation.
“The traditional Christkindl market, if you go to Germany, you will not see a bench, you will not see chairs. You stand,” said Mr. Gentzke, who hails originally from Hamburg. He noted that despite being less-known than the Bavaria-centric Oktoberfest, “there’s no more traditional event than having a Christkindl market.”
Starting small with 12 booths this year, the eventual vision is to incorporate other regional specialties from Germany and even to lay the groundwork for a more ecumenical international Christmas market once sponsorships are more easy to come by, Mr. Oltmanns said. This year was seen as somewhat of a pilot project, but already the event has gained significant traction.
The booths were purchased and imported from northern Germany, and all the food products — from lebkuchen (gingerbread) to marzipan (from its purported origin city of Lübeck)— were brought in from the finest suppliers that Mr. Oltmanns and others combed the country to find starting way back in February.
The market itself was years in the making, germinating from an idea to introduce German culture to the uninitiated, while playing on the nostalgia of Germans and those who have traveled to Germany or experienced Christmas markets while living there, perhaps during U.S. military service.
In fact, Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., was one of the first to call when the Christkindl Market put up its Facebook page. A five-piece U.S. Army brass ensemble has offered to perform Dec. 10. See more special events here
Already the market has become a broader regional affair, with group inquiries having come in from places like Birmingham, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Tampa, Fla., Mr. Oltmanns said.
A Christ Child From Atlanta’s Sister City
“Christkindl” doesn’t make explicit reference to religion beyond the holiday’s obvious traditional tie to Christianity. The term is more of a nod to the German belief about how the presents are delivered, said Mr. Oltmanns, who also works closely with the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern United States.
Instead of St. Nick or Santa Claus, a German tradition said to date from the times of Protestant reformer Martin Luther holds that the blonde-haired Christkind, or “Christ Child,” is the one who brings the gifts inside the home.
That tradition animates the strong Christmas heritage in Atlanta’s German sister city of Nürnberg, which started the first Christkindl market in the late 1600s and continues to operate one of the most famous in the country in its old town square.
Every two years, Nürnberg designates a young woman as the official Christkind. She dons a white robe, curly blonde wig and a tall golden crown as she opens the market in the city., reading out the traditional prologue. She conducts similar duties at other German Christmas markets worldwide, as Nürnberg Christkind Teresa Treuheit did in Atlanta this weekend. A broader delegation from the city stayed for a week laying the groundwork for further collaborations on trade and issues like human rights, a key tenet of their relationship.
A Cross-Cultural Mission
The amount of collaboration for a seemingly simple event has been substantial, given the logistics of getting everything to Atlanta and pulling off the market itself.
Some of the finger-length Nürnberger sausages are being supplied by a German exporter company called HoWe, owned by Bavarian soccer club Bayern München’s manager and World Cup great, Uli Hoeness.
Local companies are also involved, including Tim’s Wooden Toys of Georgia’s alpine town, Helen, along with Bernhard’s German Bakery located on Atlanta Street in Marietta. Der Biergarten, located on Marietta Street in downtown Atlanta, is operating the food booth.
Teri Simmons, a German-speaking attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory LLP who for years led the Atlanta Sister Cities Commission and has been deeply involved with the Atlanta-Nürnberg relationship, said the market brings back memories of her time in Germany, where she lived as a student.
“The market was filled with not only German, Austrian and Swiss nationals over the weekend, but also with Atlantans who had lived in Germany and visited Germany – the smells of the nuts roasting and the glühwein brought back many memories for all,” Ms. Simmons said.
She and others involved in the German community hope that the event will be a cultural initiation that will spur deeper exploration of business and educational ties.
“My high-school and graduate-school exchanges in Germany changed my life and shaped my career. In the spirt of ‘paying it forward,’ I hope that Atlantans will not only enjoy the market, but that many will also benefit from the cultural programs and international exchange opportunities it will bring to many,” Ms. Simmons said.
Mr. Gentzke seconded that notion, saying that Atlanta, with its already strong German air links and prominent German companies like Porsche, Siemens and many more, is the perfect place from which to deepen these connections.
“From Atlanta there are more flights to Germany than to any other country, so if you do the math, how many people on a daily, weekly or monthly basis touch the Atlanta airport?” he said. “Hopefully we can get them excited to consider exchange programs, and for tourist purposes, maybe to visit other countries.”
Anyone who visits can rest assured they’re contributing to the foundation’s cross-cultural mission. Unlike other markets run as for-profit ventures, the proceeds from the event will go back into the coffers of the foundation, which supports the Goethe-Zentrum in Atlanta, the German School of Atlanta and other causes.