Decked out in a jeweled crown and golden gown, the Christkind kneels to lock eyes with her interlocutor.
Ever attentive, she engages in a short conversation, then poses for an obligatory photo with a smile that’s somehow practiced but sincere.
They may not know who she is or what she stands for, but kids (and adult shoppers) of all ages seem drawn to the golden-haired Christmas angel from Nuremberg, Germany, as she glides around the Atlanta Christkindl Market at Atlantic Station.
That’s one of the reasons Barbara Otto, the 20-year-old selected this year out of a stout field of applicants, has wanted this gig since she was a girl: Visiting homeless shelters, kindergartens and nursing homes back in Nuremberg goes along with being an ambassador of her native city overseas.
“You appear somewhere, and even without doing anything you bring joy to the whole room,” Ms. Otto told Global Atlanta in an interview. Before Atlanta, she graced markets in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Upon her return to Europe next week, she’ll head to Brussels.
Sometimes mistaken for a queen, she relishes the chance to explain the tradition now associated with the oldest Christmas market in Germany in the Atlanta sister city of Nuremberg in the 1600s. Christkindl markets have now fanned out across the the German-speaking world and beyond, becoming a bona fide cultural export.
But in Nuremberg, it holds special significance. The city elects the Christkind, the “Christ child” of yore who during the Reformation was said to bring presents on Christmas Eve, like Santa or St. Nick in other parts of the world.
It’s rewarding to see how a distinctly German tradition has taken root in U.S., said Ms. Otto, who is also studying economics at at Georg Simon Ohm University of Applied Sciences Nuremberg.
“They have their own American-German charm,” she said of U.S. Christkindl markets.
At 7 p.m. in Atlantic Station Saturday night, Dec. 2, she’ll replicate her traditional function in Nuremberg, opening the market by reading a prologue filled with admonitions to value the season and its traditions of warmth and generosity. There will also be a lantern walk for kids.
Before that, though, she’ll head to the German School of Atlanta, where she’ll meet with some of the more than 300 students who now learn German language and culture there on Saturdays.
Even more than greeting shoppers, the school visit gives a glimpse into why the Christmas market was kick-started last year. Beyond just a warm, fuzzy tradition, it’s also a fundraising venture that could lead to real educational exchanges.
The market is organized by the nonprofit German-American Cultural Foundation, which sees it as a means to perpetuate its work fostering interaction between Atlanta and Germany.
Joerg Wekel, a financial professional hired to run this year’s event, said 2016 laid a solid foundation — bringing out German businesses and generating a lot of interest from vendors and attendees.
“We had a lot of interest and demand this year, so we could have probably filled double the size of it. We’re trying to keep it very authentic German with the products we sell, the food we provide,” Mr. Wekel said.
For Peter Halpaus, a board member of the foundation, authenticity is key in a city where some people get their idea of Germany from the north Georgia town of Helen.
“That’s what Americans think Christmas is or an Oktoberfest is. We want to show them how it is really. We want to really establish a real German tradition. It will enrich the cultural life of Atlanta. That’s really what we want to do,” said Mr. Halpaus, who chairs IFF Inc., a freight forwarder.
Few German squares are as commercially oriented as what amounts to an outdoor mall in Atlantic Station’s Central Park, but Mr. Halpaus said the serene atmosphere, nestled between the big Christmas tree and Santa’s workshop, can be truly reminiscent of a German town square — especially with the wafting smells of roasted nuts and a cup of spiced gluehwein.
“We are a Christmas market in a Christmas market,” Mr. Halpaus said.
Hoping to follow in the footsteps of a larger Christmas market in Chicago, the foundation has marshaled support from the German business community, with Porsche coming on as a platinum sponsor this year. The luxury auto maker, which has its U.S. headquarters in Atlanta, will support the unfurling of a banner that announcing the market to the downtown connector (complete with the Porsche logo, of course.) A Porsche car will also be posted just around the corner from the market starting this weekend.
Corporate backing is essential to what the foundation hopes will become an annual tradition, and momentum is building in the second year. The market has expanded from 12 wooden booths to 18 and still sees as achievable its eventual goal of expanding laterally through Atlantic Station, perhaps down some of the side streets.
Some favorites have returned: Bernhard’s Bakery has the all-important Christstollen, a special bread filled with dried fruit and covered in sugar. Lebkuchen-Schmidt is supplying authentic Nuremberg gingerbread. Local European butcher Patak is providing hand-made bratwursts and other meats. Other German companies have wooden toys and hand-blown glass ornaments for shoppers looking for unique refreshments and gifts.
A few new faces have come this year as well. Steinbach Nutcrackers, the famous brand of upscale, handmade figurines, is occupying two booths at the market.
So is Bratplatz, an Atlanta-born food concept that promises “German street food” like sandwiches (including the towering “Dirty Bird” chicken schnitzel sandwich), as well as pretzel bites with beer cheese and fresh-made waffles at the market.
Johnathan Sanford, an American who launched the business in October with his German wife, Insa, says the Christkindl market is the perfect place to generate exposure for the brand, which mainly sells from its food truck at corporate events.
“I didn’t realize how many German companies there were here until we actually started the business,” Mr. Sanford said, noting that the foundation is now helping the culinary startup get more tied in with Atlanta’s German-American Chamber of Commerce.
That close-knit community of Germans is why you’ll see top executives volunteering to pour wine and sell items at the market, said Teri Simmons, a German-speaking attorney at Arnall Golden Gregory and a long-time advocate of Atlanta’s ties with Nuremberg.
The proceeds for this market don’t go to some private pocketbook, she said.
“They really are funneled back into the community. That’s very important for our market, which is why we have such involvement from major corporations,” like AGCO, Mercedes-Benz, Bauerfeind and others. Logistics firm Kuehne & Nagel provided in-kind support including delivery and construction of the booths, while other smaller German firms have pitched in as well.
View more from last year’s story here: First Christkindl Market Fills Gap in Atlanta’s German Experience