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Germany's latest big export: Christmas markets

Steeped in tradition and charm, Germany's Christmas markets date back to the Middle Ages. But they are also a big business. NBC News' Andy Eckardt reports from Berlin.

BERLIN — Iconic sites like the Brandenburg Gate and remnants of the Berlin Wall aren't the main attractions in Germany's capital at this time of year. In December, the biggest crowds can be found at one of the city's 80 traditional Christmas markets.

Their handcrafts, beautifully decorated stalls and medley of colorful lights attract festive visitors during what was once a bleak time of year for the tourism industry.

Experts estimate that the Christmas market industry is worth about $5 billion annually to the German economy.

Cities across the United States are also trying to cash in on the centuries-old tradition. They include Chicago, DenverTulsa, Okla., Helen, Ga., and Arlington, Texas, where the local Chamber of Commerce has teamed up organizations including the Texas Rangers baseball team to bring some European traditions to the Lone Star state.

Nam Y. Huh / AP

Shoppers examine German Christmas ornaments at the Christkindlmarket in downtown Chicago on Nov. 30.

"Because Arlington has a German sister city, because we have about 3 million residents in Texas that have German ancestry and because many U.S. soldiers here were once stationed in Germany, we wanted to celebrate this German tradition," Henry Lewcyk from the Arlington Chamber of Commerce told NBC News.

'Tremendous boost'
In its second year, Arlington's German Christmas Market has also helped local businesses. 

"This new attraction has brought a tremendous boost to our local hospitality and entertainment industry," Lewczyk added.

The biggest Christmas market outside of Germany can be found in Birmingham, England. The event runs 38 days this year and combines two traditional markets with a total of 190 stalls. 

On average, three million people enjoy decorations, crafts and food products from Germany each year in the British city. Officials say that local retailers and hotels see a total of nearly $146 million in associated spending annually.

The markets weren't always such an easy sell.

“When I visited the first tourism fairs in Japan and the United States in the 1980s with my Christmas products, people first smiled at my presentations there,” German entrepreneur Harald Wohlfahrt told NBC News. "But very quickly, I became an ambassador for German Christmas customs."

Yet, when it comes to capturing the authentic German Christmas feeling, many say it can only be found in Germany.

Johannes Simon / Getty Images

Christmas decorations hang for sale at the traditional Christmas market in Nuremberg, Germany. Dating to the 16th century, it is seen as one of the country's oldest markets.

“Christmas markets stand for German ‘Gemütlichkeit’, the coziness of the holiday season,” Wohlfahrt said.

“We want to avoid the commercialization of Christmas because our philosophy is that this special German tradition needs to be preserved.” 

Germany has been building on a rich Christmas culture and carefully attends to old traditions.

From the famous Dresden Christmas ‘Stollen’ – a fruit cake that dates back to a recipe created in medieval Saxony in the 15th century — to historic mouth-blown and hand-painted glass ornaments, there is a large number of Christmas products that are sold, and often manufactured, at local Christmas markets.

German craftsman Matthias Streckfuss has been coming to Berlin's "Christmas Magic" installation at the city's picturesque Gendarmenmarkt for nearly a decade.

“Every year, more and more people come to see our traditional handcrafts, they buy our works, but sometimes just want to get into the Christmas spirit with a chat about our professions or simply, the good old times,” the 50-year old Streckfuss said.

Streckfuss is one of only 10 mammoth ivory carvers in Germany, who crafts jewelry, miniatures and even sculptures out of fossil mammoth ivory, which is imported from the Siberian tundra.

“It is a dying trade but I still have a growing number of customers and a 5 to 10 percent sales increase every year, thanks to the Christmas market business," he added.

There are nearly 2,500 Christmas markets across Germany. The ‘Christkindlesmarkt’ in Nuremberg is the largest attracts more than two million people each year. And that means jobs.

Michael Probst / AP

Hundreds of people gather in the rain to attend the opening of the traditional Christmas Market in the German city of Frankfurt on Nov. 26.

“At our all-year Christmas stores and for our online shop we permanently employ 270 workers, but for the Christmas markets we always need to hire more than 700 additional people,” said Wohlfahrt, who is general manager of Käthe Wohlfahrt, a well-known family business that sells traditional German Christmas decorations.

The markets have become so popular that new creations have found their way into the scene: Berlin, for example, also hosts a Christmas designer market. Another sells authentic home-baked food and organically produced clothes.

"Christmas markets have become a magnet for visitors," said Katharina Dreger, head of public relations at Visit Berlin. She said the tourism industry's one-time "winter hole" in the German capital has been filled by visitors from across the country and abroad.

Often found with a cup of hot mulled wine or a bag of roasted chestnuts in their hands, many foreign visitors say the winter wonderland atmosphere can't be beat.

“These are my first markets in Europe and they are just amazing, they are magical,” said Emma Saligari, 33, from Australia, who was spending two weeks on a special Christmas Market Tour that includes more than 20 stops in Germany.

“We do have little winter markets in Scotland, usually with five or ten of the little stalls. But this is much more traditional, this is the real thing,” added Ray Cox, 57,  from Edinburgh, who came to Berlin with his wife Fiona.

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