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Still time to check out Christkindlmarket

Cary Ill. native Dawn McGinley (left) Nancy Wegner Mount Prospect enjoy mug GluhweChristkindlmarket Daley PlazDec. 5. | Ashlee Rezin~For Sun-Times

Cary, Ill., native Dawn McGinley (left) and Nancy Wegner, of Mount Prospect, enjoy a mug of Gluhwein at Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza on Dec. 5. | Ashlee Rezin~For Sun-Times Media

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♦ Through Dec. 24

♦ 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays)

♦ Daley Plaza, onWashington between Clark and Dearborn

♦ Free admission

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If you’ve ever walked by Daley Plaza during the holiday season, you’ll notice it looks a bit … different. While the rustic red-and-white-striped wooden huts might appear to be a siege by a rogue band of gnomes, it’s actually the site of a lavish German holiday tradition. It’s called Christkindlmarket, and it pays homage to the popular yearly attraction in Nuremberg, Germany dating back to the 16th century.

Now in its 18th year in Chicago, this festive outdoor market is filled with food, drinks, entertainment and shopping and has become one of the largest and most respected replicas in the States, which is why Germans like myself flock every year during its four-week stay in December. But, American friends, don’t just think you can get a bratwurst and go. Instead, here are some secret tips on how to really enjoy the festival like a true German:

Be Touched By An Angel

New this year, Chicago has its very own roving Christkind, the namesake of the festival. You’ll be able to spot her easily: She looks like Goldilocks and will be the only one wearing gold and white robes and a crown. The Christkind is the German version of Santa who, like the big man, is the bearer of presents on Christmas Eve, the celebrated holiday in German families. Christkind visits the marketplace daily from 2 to 4 p.m. through Dec. 22..

Look for Pigs and Pickles

Both are good luck symbols in German culture. Edible marzipan pigs are given as a gift of good luck in the new year. The symbolism originated with German farm families who thought themselves lucky if they had a pig, and therefore enough meat to survive the long winter. Pickle ornaments are also a long-standing tradition in German families: whoever finds the hidden pickle on the tree first receives an extra present. Find yours in the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Store with one of the world’s largest ornament collections.

Skip the Ketchup

It’s not just a Chicago thing; putting ketchup on any German sausage is also a crime. Bratwurst is the most popular choice and traditionally should be eaten without a bun and loaded with sauerkraut and spicy mustard. Other authentic treats to try: 20 varieties of roasted nuts and lebkuchen, which is the best gingerbread this side of Munich.

Dessert for Dinner

Hearty German strudel (not the grocery store kind) is often eaten as a main course for dinner, so you won’t be breaking any rules if you choose to do the same. Get free samples of strudel and the fruitcake stollen at the Dinkel’s Bakery hut. The bakery has been a staple in Chicago since 1922, started by a Bavarian immigrant whose authentic recipes are upheld today.

Be There at 12 Sharp

Visitors at Christkindlmarket at noon each day will be entered to win the chance to open the corresponding Advent Calendar door with a special gift inside from one of the nearly 60 vendors. This giant six-foot attraction is a replica of traditional advent calendars that are used by impatient Europeans to count down the days until Christmas.

Speak German

Many of the vendors are flown in from Germany, and while they speak English, make them feel at home while they’re freezing their hands off serving your crepes and potato pancakes. Keep these phrases handy: “Danke Schoen” (Thank You), “Bitte Schoen” (You’re Welcome) and “Frohliches Weinachten” (Merry Christmas).

And Prost!

This is the German word for a toast or cheers. Beer tents don’t expire in Germany after Oktoberfest. But at Christkindlmarket, the drink of choice is gluwhein, a mulled wine that is served warm and in a collectible mug to remember Christkindlmarket until next year.

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