The Christmas Tree
Strasbourg is pretty much known around here for Christmas. I was informed a few times, and enthusiastically each time that it’s the Christmas Capital. I normally reply with an overly flexed face to show excitement to make up for my very limited French vocabulary, yet once I finally asked, “Christmas capital of what – du quoi?,” the question bothered me from the very start. “Just the Christmas Capital,” Julien, an Alsacian born and raised in Strasbourg, said with a shrugand his usual air of nonchalance. And that’s the short story behind why Strasbourg is the Christmas Capital, period.
It was finally in Strasbourg one December weekend that I realized how my question simply merited a shrug. The city is in full Christmas bling swing and one simply steps into the plaza to be transported to the heart of Noël – the Christmas tree, one illuminated, unimposing, huge Alsacian sapin. What follows is the starting line for the famed Strasbourg Christmas market, the oldest one in France and the largest in the world. Ahhh, c’est bien ça!
The Christmas Market
During winter, Christmas markets are in every towns and villages in Alsace, the North East region from France (right on the border with Germany). The capital city of the region, Strasbourg and its Christmas market, draws in about 2 million visitors each year. The market sprawls in the town center periphery, sometimes bundled up in spacious (mini plaza-like) areas and sometimes making up a stretch of temporarily set-up wooden stalls called chalet mushrooming along the streets. Did you know that this market started in 1570? The earliest Christmas market, however, started way back. The oldest one in the world is recorded to be in Munich, Germany first held in 1310. Meanwhile, Vienna’s “December market” was traced back to 1294, but only became a “Christmas Market” in later years.
n the Strasbourg Christmas market, one can find traditional and artisan products such as spice bread, bretzels, confectionery, pastries and mulled wine on offer. From here you can also find and buy your real Christmas tree and be able to choose from a huge selection of tinsels, Christmas baubles and other trimmings to decorate your tree and home. If you are thinking Christmas Bazaar, this is indeed it.
You might be interested to know how much this whole festivity costs. Let me tell you then that the city spends $3.3 million for the holiday preparations and decorations each year and is said to maintain this investment level. Why? Because the period from the last weekend of November to Christmas generates more than $210 million in benefits for Strasbourg. Oh la la!
Hot Wine and Nutella Crepes
Roaming around the Christmas market is never complete without stopping by a chalet that sells mulled or hot wine or vin chaud, another Christmas season staple. Since the weather can be very cold, more or less 5 degrees Celsius when I was there on 13-16 December 2013, people drink this traditional recipe to warm up. One cannot miss it in the Christmas market, just follow the smell of cinnamon in the air. It normally is the more crowded chalet and juste à côté would be the crepe stall, go grab one with the Nutella spread. This ensemble tops my favorite Christmas market festivity list. If you are not anywhere near these Christmas markets, try making the crepes yourself with this simple recipe by yours truly, and this promises to be a vin chaud recipe from the Alsace region itself.
“When the switch was thrown in here to signal the start of the holiday season, 2.75 miles of streets strung with 38,000 feet of cable flashing 35,000 bulbs confirmed Strasbourg as France’s Christmas capital. Nowhere else in France – not even in Paris – is Christmas celebrated with the natural conviction, respect for ceremony, and generosity of spirit that it is here.”
“Nowhere else in the world!,” declares ze Couz.