Strasbourg is a beacon of the Christmas tradition


We left Paris in the dark. As our bullet train headed for the German border at nearly 200 mph, the rain furiously lashed the windows. Instead of a blanket of snow, the fields of Alsace reflected a soggy glow as the winter day dawned cold and late.

There are the Christmas markets, and then there is Strasbourg. I had booked a last minute trip to this town in eastern France for my Christmas obsessed 11 year old daughter Jane. Dating back to 1570, Strasbourg is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe, and it is in a class of its own. The entire city is transformed with multiple thematic markets, concerts, exhibitions and a festive atmosphere that attracts around 2 million visitors per year. Due to the pandemic shutdown in 2020, there was a huge pent-up demand for this year’s event. Needless to say when I searched for hotels online there were no rooms at the hostel so we opted for a day trip which the TGV makes possible in 2 hours 20 minutes .

Our Christmas enthusiasm is not universally shared. For my husband, a Christmas market is a trade fair with fake Alpine chalets peddling mass-produced knick-knacks. Certainly, the proliferation of these markets has at times resulted in clichéd deals with bad music and cheap imports. But he has not seen Strasbourg. Rooted in tradition, the city strives to cultivate authenticity and showcase craftsmen. Its dedicated website offers an illustrated map with descriptions of traders (noel.strasbourg.eu/fr/chalets). To make the most of our time, I mapped out our itinerary in advance. I hadn’t planned on opening any umbrellas when we got off the train, but our excitement couldn’t be dampened.

It actually started in the Middle Ages as a market dedicated to Saint Nicholas, whose feast is celebrated on December 6. An independent republic within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg converted to Protestantism during the Reformation, so the market was renamed Christkindelsmärik. (“Market of the infant Jesus” in Alsatian) to dissociate Catholic customs and the worship of saints. Louis XIV annexed Strasbourg to France in the 17th century and Alsace became the object of a fierce struggle between France and Germany until the end of World War II. Today the seat of the European Parliament, the city is a symbol of continental unity.

In 1992, the mayor’s office launched “Strasbourg, capital of Christmas”, and the market transformed into its current incarnation: a city-wide extravaganza with around 300 chalets spilling over into the squares and streets of the city. city ​​center classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A major boost for tourism, the overwhelming success of the event has led to concerted efforts to uphold authenticity, with vendors carefully vetted and some products banned. In 2010, the city said goodbye to churro, the fried dough sprinkled with sugar of Spanish origin, alongside panini, the hot sandwich most often equated with Italy, in favor of local culinary specialties like kouglof ( a sweet brioche), pretzels (pretzels) and sauerkraut (sauerkraut).

Customs and rituals are abundant. During Advent, families decorate trees and set up elaborate nativity scenes populated with an entire village of tiny figurines. And then there is the bredle. In Alsace, there is not just a Christmas cookie, but dozens of varieties, each with its own name, the recipes are passed down from generation to generation. Just a sample: the cinnamon star is a star-shaped delicacy flavored with cinnamon; spritzbredle is made from ground almonds; and anisbredle is flavored with anise. It’s up to you to choose among the cornucopias on display at the Bas-Rhin bakers federation; these industrious bakers set up a marquee on the Place du Marché-aux-Poissons and offer workshops and recipe booklets.

Beyond the pastry, the decor of the city also requires months of work. Place Kléber has the largest decorated Christmas tree in Europe, over 100 feet. The National Forestry Office travels through the neighboring forests of Alsace, Moselle and Vosges to find the perfect tree, which is then hoisted onto a truck, erected in the square, embellished with additional greenery and decorated with more than four kilometers of light garlands. and hundreds of ornaments over a three week period.

The city where Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press also promotes humanistic values ​​and a sense of community at the Christmas market. In the Sharing Village next to the giant tree, some 90 associations and associations explain their missions and accept donations. Here, we warm up with the starred soup, concocted from the recipes of four starred chefs, which raises funds for Humanis, a non-profit collective carrying out solidarity projects.

There is joy in the wait for Christmas. For Jane, it started in September when she started a stealth project with her sister. I assumed it had to do with the toy extravagance imagined on December 25th. When the secret was finally revealed to me, I was taken by surprise. Jane had made a list of the perfect gifts for each member of her extended family, using her allowance and keeping elaborate charts. Christmas is giving, an 11-year-old reminds me.

In Strasbourg, gifts have more character thanks to the artisans who make them. Among the treasures were the natural soaps created in Alsace by Argasol, the handcrafted wooden toys from Brin d’Ours and the gingerbread from Mireille Oster. The self-proclaimed “ambassador” of this honey cake has two gourmet shops in Strasbourg and two stalls on the Christmas market. (She follows in the footsteps of her grandparents, who sold gingerbread at the market from 1933.) Reinventing classic recipes, Oster incorporates unusual ingredients from her travels, such as goji berries, ginger, dates and orange blossom.

“It just keeps on going,” Jane said incredulously as we walked through Strasbourg. By this point, we had spotted several stalls looking for Poterie Fortuné Schmitter, and it was Jane who finally spotted the distinctive blue colors of Cathedral Square. This seventh generation company is one of the last pottery to have made the famous salt enamelled stoneware of Betschdorf, a village on the edge of the Haguenau forest. What is unique is the ancestral technique: when firing clay at temperatures of 1,250 degrees Celsius (2,282 Fahrenheit), salt is thrown into the oven, forming a fine natural glaze. Their products run the gamut from storage pitchers and jars to beer mugs and Christmas decorations.

“The Strasbourg Christmas market is a real showcase for us,” said Luce Schmitter of the event where they have had a stand for 23 years. “We can talk about our expertise to people all over the world.

There is always a queue at the chalet for the glass center of the Center international d’art verrier (CIAV). Famous all over the world, these much-requested Christmas balls have even been included in the 2021 Advent calendar created by Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé. After all, the Christmas ball itself – that ubiquitous ornament found on trees across the planet – has its origins in glassworks in the Vosges. “The story goes that there was a drought in 1858, so there was a lack of apples, pine cones and other things used to decorate Christmas trees”, explains Esther Abel, head of the archives. and heritage at CIAV. “A glassmaker from Goetzenbruck made little balls and gave them to the village, and the idea caught on.

Today, the tradition is carried on at the CIAV, where the last glassmakers of Goetzenbruck were invited to share their know-how in 1998. (The vast glassworks of Meisenthal was established in 1704 and produced millions of good glassware. market before closing in 1969, leaving behind a The venue was relaunched in 1992 as CIAV, its mission to preserve traditional glassblowing techniques. limited edition created by an artist, alongside his classic collections. “It’s a secret process and the announcement of the unveiling is a real event,” Abel said. Only 25,000 are produced per year – “human art is respected; this is not a Christmas bauble factory” – so Jane and I were happy to get our hands on two (the limit allowed) from Piaf (” sparrow “), designed by artist Harmonie Begon in a range of colors.

We took refuge from the rain in the new Léonor hotel. Jane loves hotels as much as I do (for her it’s all about breakfast; for me it’s stories), and this one was particularly appealing, the result of a four-year restoration of a historic monument. which was once the home of a governor of Alsace and Marshal of France. Behind the neoclassical facade, the atmosphere is trendy and chic, especially in the restaurant. It is piloted by Nicolas Stamm and Serge Schaal, two Michelin stars at La Fourchette des Ducs in Obernai. Watching the rain through the window, we took our time for lunch: crispy chicken with mashed sweet potato and trout tartare in an emulsion of Bibeleskaes, the Alsatian white cheese.

Another downpour saw us sheltering inside Strasbourg Cathedral, a flamboyant masterpiece with red hues of the Gothic and Romanesque styles. When the bell tower was completed in 1439, the cathedral reigned as the tallest building in the world until 1874. Inside, the astronomical clock attracts all the love of visitors, but what caught my eye attention, this is the exhibition of tapestries. Suspended on either side of the nave during Advent, a collection of 14 17th century tapestries represents the life of the Virgin Mary. And the Nativity scene, which is 55 feet long, even includes a huge elephant and camels accompanying the three wise men.

Night fell early, as if at the right time, at 4.30 p.m. Suddenly the lights came on and Strasbourg was so brightly lit it looked like daylight. The cathedral bells started ringing simultaneously, ringing through the city, and we had to stop dead. In the Carré d’Or, a historic downtown district, we spied dozens of iPhones suspended in the air to capture the scene. The traders are famous for their decor, the half-timbered houses festooned with stuffed animals, conifers and frosted branches under light garlands that roam the street. Strasbourg is considered the most illuminated city in Europe at the time of Advent, and it was by the river that we were moved: luminous stars strung in the trees as far as the eye can see.

The rain started again and we hid in a cheerful tent on the terrace of the Rohan Palace, where the culinary vendors gather. This particular place, the Tribu des Gourmets, advocates Alsace wines which are sometimes little known, highlighting the town’s important historical links with the vineyard. Mulled wine is prolific at the Christmas market; to curb garbage, you pay a deposit on a cup that is returned to you when you hand your empty cup to any merchant. But here there is the pride of the ancestral recipe, made of dry white wine instead of red.

Backs aching from the transport of our purchases, we removed our bags and wrapped our numb fingers around steaming mugs (Jane’s hot apple juice as fragrant as orange-cinnamon-scented wine). Star lanterns shone above us, smells of spices wafted from the cauldrons and laughter poured into the crowd. Side by side, we watched the canal boats ply the waters in the pouring rain. “Let’s stay the night next year,” Jane said.


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