Published on November 23rd, 2016 | by Molly Montgomery1
Many regions of France have their own Christmas traditions, but the region most well-known for its Christmas celebrations is the region of Alsace, which borders Germany and Switzerland. The largest Christmas market in France is situated in the region’s capital, Strasbourg, but other notable Christmas destinations in the region include Colmar and Mulhouse. Many of the small towns in Alsace also have their own unique Christmas traditions.
At your typical Alsatian Christmas market, you will be able to stay warm with steaming food and hot drinks. Many vendors sell “vin chaud,” mulled wine, which has spices brewed in it, and hot cider. Others may sell crepes, waffles, and other sweet treats. If you’re looking for something more savory, the vendors will usually sell regional food, such as pretzels and tarte flambée, which is not a cake as you might suspect, but a type of baked dough, similar to pizza, with cream fraîche, onions, and bacon on top. These treats are nice to munch on while you shop for Christmas presents.
Vendors at the markets showcase a wide variety of tourist trinkets and artisanal fare, including Christmas ornaments, toys, candles, and much more. Look out for traditional items that are made in Alsace, including the “torchon,” a patterned tea towel. You will also find Bredelas, traditional Alsatian Christmas cookies made with gingerbread and other spices. Other vendors will also sell chocolates, tea, and candy.
Strasbourg’s Christmas market is spread out across the entire city center, and as the largest market, it is one of the most crowded and lively to visit. The streets of the city are decked with holiday decorations, such as enormous gingerbread men strung between the buildings, and a giant Christmas tree in Place Kléber, the main square. The market has an area for children where there are plenty of activities for them, including a merry-go-round and performances to watch. There are also concerts of Christmas music during the market weeks for all to enjoy.
Strasbourg invites one country every year to the market to display their own Christmas traditions and sell their own unique crafts and food. This year, that country is Luxembourg.
The Christmas market in the city of Colmar, just half-an-hour south of Strasbourg on the train, is also worth a visit. The market there is smaller than in Strasbourg, but the small-town charm of Colmar combined with the cheer of Christmas decorations creates a wonderful atmosphere. Colmar’s market has an indoor area for local artists and craftsmen to display and sell their creations. Colmar also has an outdoor ice skating rink open during its market. Another notable market which is further south of Colmar is Mulhouse. The market in this formerly industrial town is confined to its picturesque main square, but it offers a unique experience that intertwines history and culture. While visiting the market, you can stop at the free history museum to learn about Mulhouse’s history from the Middle Ages onward, discovering how it became a bustling industrial center where textiles were made. The lower level of the museum is transformed each year into a large shop with traditional Alsatian textiles and other products.
The Mulhouse market also has a Christmas chalet, which offers culinary workshops and arts-and-crafts events.
There are many other Christmas celebrations and markets that are off the beaten path in Alsace. One of these traditions is the Enchanted Forest in Altkirch. Altkirch is a town in the Sundgau, the southeastern part of Alsace, a twenty-minute train ride from Mulhouse. During the Christmas season, holiday displays are lit at night around the town center. These beautiful displays tell stories: old folk tales from the region about trolls, fairies, witches, and golden carp. The Enchanted Forest, which is haunting and beautiful, offers a glimpse into the folklore of the region and is hardly known to people from outside the area. In fact, I would not have known about it myself if I had not been living in Altkirch during last year’s Christmas season. The region of Alsace is littered with hidden treasures like this one, especially during the Christmas season, which will captivate you and leave you in awe.
Most of the Christmas markets in Alsace are open from late November all the way until late December, so you can enjoy the holiday spirit weeks before it is actually Christmas. In fact, in Alsace and France, it is traditional to celebrate the Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas.
In Alsace, the first holiday to mark the beginning of the Christmas season is Saint Nicolas’ Day on December 6th. On this day, Alsatians celebrate the saint who, by legend, brought three children, murdered by a butcher, back to life. The saint gives children little gifts on his saint’s day, including gingerbread and clementines, but despite his bushy white beard, he is not to be mistaken for Santa Claus. Although the legend of Santa Claus also originates from the celebration of the same saint, the modern Santa Claus has been imported to France from American and British culture and is treated as a separate person entirely. On December 6th, Alsatians celebrate the holiday by eating mannele, fluffy pastries in the shape of children, sometimes dipped in chocolate. They represent the children who Saint Nicolas saved.