Christmas in July: Rothenburg is “Käthe Wohlfahrtburg”

At Käthe Wohlfahrt shops, Christmas (or at least Christmas shopping) is a year-round season.
By Rick Steves

To see just how commercial Rothenburg ob der Tauber has become, I made a reconnaissance mission into the town’s busiest place: a Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop. A six-foot nutcracker — with a mouth big enough to crack a camcorder — welcomes a steady stream of tourist shoppers. A spinning white-flocked Christmas tree is heavy with red-and-gold bulbs. Serving as Santa’s own turnstile, it whisked me into a land of perpetual Christmas. This ever-blinking and twinkling Kris Kringle Market — built on the notion that Christmas should be 12 months a year — is the biggest consumer of electricity in Rothenburg. Deeper and deeper past megawatt candles and chimes, into the grand grotto of year-round Christmas I went.

The shop is oddly multicultural: Japanese salespeople sell Chinese knickknacks as if they’re German. A smiling monkey cleans a chimney, Kermit der Frog hangs dirndls out to dry, and a stern-faced teddy winds a cuckoo clock. Mossy manger scenes come ready-populated or à la carte. A toy medieval village street shakes with a wall of Steiff teddy bears, jerking uncontrollably and mesmerizing little kids.

An East German group, sweaty after a long hot bus ride, clogged the aisles. They come on day trips from Dresden and Leipzig with picnics from home and a lifetime backlog of curiosity. Pushing them deeper into the store, an American group followed, chattering excitedly about how they decorate their Christmas trees. The next group was Japanese, snapping up souvenirs and shooting photos like gunslingers. Woven old-time shopping baskets make impulse buying feel almost traditional. I, too, have some Wohlfahrt souvenirs: a few shiny Christmas-tree ornaments and a letter from Wohlfahrt’s lawyer. Displeased with the favorable treatment I gave in my guidebook to a competing shop, he warned me that it was “illegal” to favor one shop over another.

Ready to leave, a momentary panic hit me as false passage after false passage led me into more racks of trinkets. Finally, through Steindorf and Cuckooville, I rolled past the 12 zinging cash registers, out of December, and back into the Rothenburg summer. Annaliese (who runs the shop I recommend in my guidebook) was sitting at a café across the street with a tall slender beer. With “tsk tsk tsk” in her voice she said, “Oh, Rick. Rothenburg is becoming Wohlfahrtburg. They’ve got eight shops in Rothenburg now. What do you do in there?” I said, “Pick up my kickbacks.” She laughed and reminded me, “Tonight is the English Conversation Club. We save a place for you at our table.”