Today we are going to talk about a very popular seasonal event, something that has become common all over the country, the fabulous Christmas markets in various places in France. Joyeux Noël everybody!
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The tradition of having a Christmas market dates back to the early Middle Ages and it comes originally from the Germanic cultures. The idea was connected to the celebration of the festival of St Nicolas, an early Christian saint, from what is now southern Turkey, who very quickly, after his life in the earliest Christian times, became the patron saint of children. As such, special day was set aside, close to the day of Advent, about 21 days before Christmas. On this day, there was (and in some cities in northern and eastern France and in Germany, there still is) a procession with an effigy of St Nicolas, and small treats and presents were given out to all the children in a town.
The time of the procession, and in all the days leading up to Christmas, special events happened and special markets sprang up, with fares that were associated specifically with Christmas like small dolls made of dough or wood, sweets like spicy ginger cakes, or candles.
Believe it or not, the first documented mention of a specific Christmas market was in the 1300’s in Germany. In Dresden there is a document that talks about permission to have a special market called a “Striezelmarkt” from the year 1434.
The Christmas Market in Strasbourg and Alsace
The region of Alsace was, for years, an independently governed area and Strasbourg, a wealthy city and trade exchange place on the Rhine River, was an important place to have these “Fairs” or Foire” in French. These Fairs brought in many tradespeople and were a source of great economic prosperity. The first mention of a Christmas Fair or market in Strasbourg dates back to the 1500’s.
But the kind of Christmas market we know now was really begun in the late 1500’s in Strasbourg when the city became more Protestant than Catholic. The old idea of a saint’s day and a saint’s market gave way to a long commercial period of trade called the Christkindlsmarkit, in honor of the baby Jesus and as an anticipation of Christmas day.
An official proclamation made the “Christkindlsmarkit” officially open from the beginning of the month of December until the 24th. And thanks to the Protestant rulers, the gifts were reserved for giving on the night of Christmas, even though the preparation and buying took place for the several weeks before that. So all our tradition of Christmas and the presents we exchange comes from an old tradition connected to the gifts (usually sweets, nuts, an orange, and maybe a little toy) given in the name of St Nicolas, but only at first, to children.
From 1570 until now; Strasbourg has had the biggest, and most important market and has set the tradition for all others. Today, Strasbourg welcomes over 2 million visitors each year for its Christmas market which takes place on the main squares, Kleber, Broglie, and in Gutenberg, as well as on the esplanade and open space in front of the cathedral Notre Dame. It overflows to all the old streets near the old historical center – and in the years 2000 the city council decided to ban all things that are not really Alsacian from the markets as it was becoming far too commercial and non identifiable for the regional products. The Strasbourg market is so important that it opens every year with a famous singer performing, there is a huge ceremony with dignitaries, and each year, a special “invited” guest is included – a country or a region. The market begins in Strasbourg on the last weekend of November – this year on the 28th, and it closes on the 31st of December.
All of this, and almost all the other markets that now are almost everywhere in France, thanks to the clever members of the Chamber of Commerce of Strasbourg, who decided, in 1992, to proclaim Strasbourg the “Capital of Christmas”! And they do everything, from the decorations on the buildings to the endless number of hotel rooms and welcome signs, to bring people to the market.
There is a specialty there of Christmas ornaments, mostly hand-made. There is spice cake, all things done with spices, the mulled wine, the gingerbread, candles, and other typical crafts from the Alsace region.
As we mention in our podcast, if you come from the States, specifically from the north, you are probably used to seeing very elaborate lights and decorations on buildings, and inside, with lots of color and flash. This is typical of Alsace in general, but not of the rest of France, which is more sedate and restrained. Between the sights and the smells, and the endless number of little things to buy (homemade toys, cloth, all kinds of candles, cakes, wine, and other foodstuffs like foie gras and pâtés ) you have a real treat.
All over Alsace, especially in Colmar, Riquewihr, or Obérnai, but actually in all the villages there is a huge celebration of Christmas, with decorations and markets everywhere. So if you want a real feeling for the spirit of Christmas in the north of France, go spend a day or two in Strasbourg or another town in Alsace. You will have a feast for your eyes and nose as well!
If you want a taste of another sort of Christmas market, you need to go to Provence in the southeast of France. There the tradition is much more Mediterranean, and is close to tradition in Italy and perhaps Spain.
The most important element in the southeast is the Nativity scene and the use of small figurines called Santons. They are part of a tradition that goes far back to the early Middle Ages when Mystery Plays relating different episodes of the life of Christ and the saints, were played out by real people on the steps or on the esplanade in front of the churches. There is a legend that says that this custom started when the mother of St Francis of Assissi who was from Provence, asked to have certain scenes re-enacted by St Francis, and his were the first “live” Nativity scenes. Of course these used real people.
In the 1500’s when Protestantism started to take hold also in the South of France, many of these Nativity scenes were forbidden to be performed in public. It was at that time that figures started to be made, of wood or of ceramic, on a fairly large-scale, and they replaced the real humans. The idea of a “doll like Nativity scene was born”.
The Christmas Market in Marseille
During the French Revolution the churches were closed and all manifestations like outdoor Nativity scenes, were outlawed. It was in 1803, after the re-opening of the churches, that the first major Santon market was held in Marseille, on the Canebière, starting at the end of November. The commercial as well as traditional aspects of making and using the Santons became apparent at this time. Their popularity has continued to grow ever since.
The typical Nativity scene included elements of life and geography from Provence – olive trees, mountains, sheep and donkeys, and rustic townspeople as well as the figures from the Bible. These are still the major components of all Provençal Nativity scenes;
Marseilles is the capital of the fabrication of Santons, and the largest Santon – Christmas market takes place there every year at this time. The entire Canebière, the main street leading down to the old port, is filled with chalets that sell all kinds of Christmas goods, soaps, lavender, spices, and more than anything, it is here that collectors come to buy their Santons. In the Bouches de Rhone, the department that includes Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, there are still 62 companies that make the santons by hand and from the crude clay that is transformed, through 7 stages of preparation, into these often tiny figures. They are all hand painted and fragile and of course, since they are hand produced, they are not inexpensive.
The Christmas Markets of Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Avignon
The weather in the south being much different from in Alsace or in the North, the atmosphere is much different. But it is an authentic market for Christmas and also attracts thousands of folks who come from other parts of France and well as from other countries, to look at and perhaps buy one of the famous Santons. There is also the opportunity to eat some Callison d’Aix, to taste the local wines,, and to feast on the fish and seafood that is traditional (like in Italy) for the season.
Christmas Markets in Paris
Paris has no specific tradition, either in food, in decoration or in objects, to make for a “regional” market. What Paris has is Paris!! The biggest Christmas market there is at the Defense, vast business area on the western side of the city straight out from the Champs Elysées. For the last number of years, there have been well over 300 chalets and vendors, selling everything from hand-woven shawls, hand-made jewelry, to hot soup and hot mulled wine, at the markets in Paris.
Paris is wonderful at Christmas time – there are lovely little white and blue lights everywhere. As Annie has mentioned, in Paris all the decoration is very sedate and “tasteful” – there are no excesses in color, lighting or noise. But there is a wonderful atmosphere connected to the holidays and to the adventure of walking up the broad avenues and seeing what crafts or little food things can be found. The Champs Elysées, from the Place de la Concorde up to the beginning of the commercial part of the boulevard, is filled, on both sides, with chalets of all sorts.
The other major Christmas decoration event in Paris is the windows of the major department stores; The Galleries Lafayette, Printemps, the Bon Samaritan, and Bon Marché on the Left Bank, all have wonderful and dynamic displays in the windows, and people come from all over to stand on line and get a chance to see these decorations. They are very beautiful.
All over Paris, in Montmartre, in St Germain, in Montparnasse, at the Trocadero area across from the Eiffel Tower, and in many other neighborhoods, there are smaller local Christmas markets, that sell crafts and food and objects associated with Christmas. They all add to the joyful atmosphere of Paris as the lights twinkle along the main boulevards.
Christmas Markets in Montbéliard, Lille, Reims, and Toulouse
In Montbéliard, in the region of the Jura mountains close to Switzerland, and not far south of Alsace, there is a famous market that has been in existence since the Middle Ages. Montbéliard, a small town of about 10 000 is an old fortified medieval city and the market takes advantage of the atmosphere to give a “fairy tale” like quality ot the Christmas market there.
Another well-known Christmas market is in Lille, the almost Flemish city at the northernmost end of France. With a huge tree in the middle of the central square, and an enormous Ferris Wheel, all decorated and the cozy beer and food shops there called Estaminets, there is a nice but wintery feeling to the festivities and to the market there.
Closer to Alsace, in the city of Reims, champagne capital, there is a famous Christmas market that begins at the beginning of December.
In Toulouse, in the southwest of France, there is a large Christmas market with over 120 chalets, on the large important Capitole square, just opposite the majestic City Hall. There are many local craftspeople, selling soaps, cheeses, cloth dyed with the famous Pastel plant, knife makers from the region of the Auvergne, and also, as in many of these markets, lots of food – hot wine, sandwiches, honey cake, cheeses, and the famous aligot – a hot mix of melted cheese, garlic and potatoes, that is good for filling you up.
And finally, because it has a couple of elements that make it very popular and special, the Christmas market in a town already famous for its food markets, the town of Sarlat in the Dordogne.
Here, in this small southwestern town, in the Dordogne area, in the heart of the Aquitaine region, the market is centered around an ice skating rink and invites a special guest every year – this year it is Portugal that has the place of honor.
All of these Christmas markets and many more, are filled with wonderful things to look at and to buy, or to eat, and all of them of course, have a commercial aspect that can’t be avoided these days. They are all great and fun – just, if you are going to buy things there, make sure they are really made in France, or in the region.
And enjoy Christmas time in France!