Travel

At Christmas Markets Worldwide, the Holiday Spirit Comes in a Little Red Boot

But getting to the bottom of the quintessential glühwein mug's rise to fame isn't as easy as it looks.

Garamax/Shutterstock
Garamax/Shutterstock
Garamax/Shutterstock

It took some effort to hide my disappointment, standing in front of a glühwein vendor in Vienna’s Maria-Theresien-Platz. And I wasn’t doing a very good job. Behind me in this impossibly European setting stood the Hofburg, the sprawling former imperial palace of Austria’s Habsburg dynasty, and all around were the magical trappings of the seasonal Weihnachtsdorf, or Christmas village: wooden buildings dripping with yellow lights; joyous explosions of laughter; the smell of meat, fried things, and warm cider; booths selling everything from snow globes-a Viennese invention-to spiced Lebkuchen gingerbread hearts. But despite the joy, and meat, and gingerbread, my face had visibly fallen.

Why? ​Because my glühwein vendor was about to pour my spiced warm wine into a regular cup. Everywhere I looked patrons young and old (well, young-ish-the drinking age is 18 in Vienna) clutched adorable porcelain mugs shaped like little red boots, illustrated with the Weihnachtsdorf. They inhaled its cozy contents deeply, letting it fog up their glasses before sipping. But the glühwein gods have forsaken me. I was going to be forced to drink from a boring, typical, cup.

Photography by Huey Yoong/Moment Open/ Getty Images
Photography by Huey Yoong/Moment Open/ Getty Images
Photography by Huey Yoong/Moment Open/ Getty Images

I’ve chased crunchy worms with mezcal in Mexico, downed rotting shark’s flesh with Brennevin in Iceland, and sampled liquor steeped with scorpions in Thailand, procured from a cave. (I have not had the sourtoe cocktail in the Yukon, but I’ll get to it.) The point is, I’m not the type to get overly dramatic about a few ounces of mulled wine, regardless of the diminutive footwear it came in. But there I was, overly dramatic.

“Maybe it seems romantic-we all like a little bit of kitsch in the Christmastime,” says Nini Haas of HAAS & HAAS, a Viennese tea company that also typically sells punsch and glühwein at the Mahlerstrasse Christmas market. Haas is obviously humoring me while plugging her brand, as she notes that she prefers the white porcelain mugs that her company uses at their restaurant on Stephansplatz 4.

But I know I’m not alone in my affinity for the boot. People scour Vienna for these mugs. When the Chriskindlemarkt in Chicago serves their glühwein in a new little boot, it makes the news. It makes even more news when they don’t, one article going so far as to claim that the market’s organizers “toyed with collectors’ emotions.”

And it’s not just Chicago. The boot-shaped mug delights patrons in Christmas markets throughout the country, including Philadelphia and Baltimore. According to Christkindlmarkt marketing manager Leila Schmidt, no one really knows what makes this particular festive mug style so popular. “That’s a good question-we should put it on our next survey,” she says when I ask. “I think a lot of people associate it with Sankt Nikolaus, who we celebrate on December 6. In Germany, you put a boot outside your door and [then] it’s filled with candy for the kids.” Or maybe it’s just, you know, festive.

Whatever the reason, being handed my warm spiced wine in a typical-albeit very nice-mug, left me forlorn. But suddenly, a Christmas miracle! The vendor looked at my face, sensed my despair, and swapped the mug for a little red boot.

Christmas Village in Philadelphia
Christmas Village in Philadelphia
Christmas Village in Philadelphia

Glühwein’s rise to boot mug prominence

The boot is not the boozy Christmas market tradition’s only draw, of course. But the origin of glühwein has less whimsical, more utilitarian parameters. Ancient Greeks called it ypocras or hippocras, named after the philosopher Hippocrates, who prescribed it for ailments in his capacity as the father of medicine. And in addition to several self-warming methods including toasting their toes by an elevated stove, the Romans imbibed calidum, or warm spiced wine mixed with water. According to Kenneth Lapatin, curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, calidum was commonly “served in heated samovar-like vessels.”

The spices and honey acted as a preservative for the wine, and as the Romans continued to, well, roam the earth conquering land, they brought with them their viticulture, including this curious heated alcohol. The first record of German glühwein-literally “glow wine,” so-called because they used a a red hot poker to heat the wine-was in 1420, based on the discovery of a large glühwein tankard thought to have belonged to German nobleman, Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen (already wine royalty, as he was the first to cultivate Germany’s prized Riesling grapes).In the years that followed, glühwein worked its magic around Europe, with each region developing its own spin. The basic recipe, however, remained the same: red or occasionally white wine, brought to a simmer and spiked with sugar, spice, and everything nice (usually a combination of ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and the holiday spirit). In Nordic countries, they call it glögg. In England, mulled wine. In the Balkans, it’s kuhano vino or kuvano vino. Italians call it vin hrüle, the Poles, grzane wino… and so on.

From there, it didn’t take long to establish itself as a Christmas market staple. Though records show outdoor provisions markets in Vienna as early as 1296, the association of markets with the festive December holiday didn’t come until a bit later, with German markets like Dresden (1434), Strasbourg (1570), and Nuremberg (1628). Thanks in part to the wine’s resounding popularity, these ventures soon became annual institutions. When Germany canceled their 2020 Christmas markets due to the pandemic, lone pop-up stalls appeared in parks and streets just to keep the glühwein flowing.

bodiaphvideo/Shutterstock
bodiaphvideo/Shutterstock
bodiaphvideo/Shutterstock

The little red boot emerges

We can only speculate exactly when the boot-shaped mug came into play. What we do know is that it was pretty much inevitable: Germans have an affinity for campy, low brow kitsch. Heck, they invented the very word.

While some cups are specifically designed to enhance the beverages they hold-thin, narrow Champagne flutes showcase and preserve sparkling wine’s delicate bubbles, red wine glasses have wider bowls to give their robust contents some breathing room, Belgian tulips taper at the top to enhance the complex aromas of a European brew-others fully embrace impracticality. But when you pour something into a thoroughly ridiculous vessel, like a pineapple or a flamingo, it simply makes drinking even more fun.

In fact, the little red mug is not the only boot-shaped vessel Germans and Austrians have taken to. Take the famous bierstiefel, or glass beer boot. This guy actually has two origin stories, both rooted in battle. One says that victorious soldiers were rewarded with beer, and in a strange turn of events, drank their spoils out of their general’s boot. Another claims that drinking out of a used boot was a hazing ritual intended to increase bonding among newly recruited soldiers. Gross as that sounds, the concept stuck.

Have you actually ever tried drinking something fizzy out of a boot-shaped glass? There are entire websites devoted to explaining how to do it without spilling all over yourself (the secret: rotate as you drink). The seemingly flawed design also became the basis for a German drinking game, where participants take turns chugging from the boot, all the while adding to the air pocket trapped at the far tip. The poor soul that gets a face full of beer has to buy the table another round.

Birute Vijeikiene/Shutterstock
Birute Vijeikiene/Shutterstock
Birute Vijeikiene/Shutterstock

Kicking it Stateside

Sipping warm wine out of a boot-shaped mug is not as difficult as tackling beer, for sure. For one thing, there are no air bubbles to contend with. At the most, it’s a tad unwieldy, not to mention kind of difficult to clean.

The first Christkindlmarket opened in Chicago’s Pioneer Court in 1996 as a transatlantic trade initiative by the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest. It’s since moved to Daley Plaza, but at the time, the market featured just 13 vendors. Some, like Frieder Frotscher’s Traditional German Food, which serves bratwurst, goulash, Leberkaese, and other specialty items, are still there today and have grown in scope.

At the time, the shape of the mugs wasn’t top of mind. The first mugs were simple, cylindrical, and green, and they stayed that way until 1999. Then things got a little wild, and the quirky, limited edition mugs blossomed into full-blown collectors’ items. “Since then, we’ve really experimented around,” says marketing manager Schmidt.

Courtesy of Christkindlmarket Chicago
Courtesy of Christkindlmarket Chicago
Courtesy of Christkindlmarket Chicago

It stands in contrast to Christmas markets overseas, where taking your mug home has never been the norm “There are different types of mugs in Germany, as well,” says Schmidt. “However, usually when you go to the markets and get your glühwein or hot chocolate, you pay a little deposit for the mug-two or three Euros-and after drinking your beverage, you return them to the booth. So in Germany, people are not as interested in collecting them.”

But in Chicago, where today 55 vendors cater to more than 1.6 million annual visitors across three markets, each year’s exclusive mug design has become a destination in itself. And the process for determining the next year’s edition begins soon after the current market closes up shop. “It’s a full year to brainstorm themes and really look into what our audience wants,” says Schmidt. They fittingly contract out the job to a graphic designer in Germany (the glühwein is also imported from the motherland).

Over the years, the iconic mugs have taken the shape of snowmen, penguins, and, for the first time this year, a reindeer for the nonalcoholic beverages. “It’s cute because we also have reindeer in our scavenger hunts at our market in Aurora, so people can take pictures with little statues,” Schmidt adds.

I already know the answer, but I have to ask. The most coveted shape?

“Definitely the boot,” says Schmidt “People love the boot.” The last year the market featured the boot shape was 2019, when they stocked three mugs-one for each location-and painted the inside of each with a different color of the German flag: red, black, and yellow. Changing up the design each year has proven to be a brilliant marketing move, keeping new audiences engaged while also enticing collectors to keep collecting.

Schmidt is especially excited about the Christkindlmarket’s mug design this year, a grayish-blue, short and stout affair with a protruding lip, alternating interior colors, and a colorful market scene stretching around the middle. “People seem to love the new shape,” she says, before throwing a touch of shade my beloved boot’s way. “The boot looks nice, but the mug we have this year is really nice to drink out of without spilling.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She still has her little red boot.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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