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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”