Strasbourg Christmas Markets and Provencal Traditions
Recently, author and Perfectly Provence contributor PJ Adams visited the Strasbourg Christmas Market. PJ wrote this article following her trip to France where she compares the seasonal holiday traditions between Alsace and Provence. Keep reading for PJ’s tasty Christmas post on sauerkraut, gingerbread, calissons and nougat.
Strasbourg France, the “Capital of Christmas,” dazzles this month with its world-famous Christmas Market. This Christmas extravaganza in northeastern France is the oldest, as well as largest, holiday market in Europe. With 11 themed Christmas villages, the market spreads across a holiday-lit city center. I had the chance recently to wander these sugarplum villages, sampling warm wine and ogling the fantasy land of twinkly lights and shimmering ornaments. I felt like I’d landed at the North Pole itself! For several days, I wandered along quaint chalets filled with Alsatian sausages and sauerkraut, shopped for handcrafted toys and ornaments, and munched Alsatian cookies and spiced breads. I was so happy I felt like a child on Christmas morning!
Days earlier I’d sped to Strasbourg aboard the high-speed Paris TGV. With high expectations, I’d entered a whole new area (to me) of France. Having spent a lot of time in Southern France, this was my first visit to Alsace. And I was not disappointed. During my Strasbourg stay I happily discovered that both Alsace and Provence have charming regional holiday traditions that anyone can share. What both have in common is a commitment to enjoying Christmas through food, pageantry, and merrymaking. But the differences are fun to note too, which I’d like to explore here.
It seems that Christmas customs originated in the Middle East, but were introduced to France by the Romans. Reims, in the nearby Champagne area, was the site of the first French Christmas celebration around 496. Over the centuries Christmas became both a religious and secular celebration in France.
Strasbourg held the very first Christmas market in Europe in 1570. Strasbourg was also the site of the first holy Christmas tree in 1605; it symbolized the tree in the Garden of Eden. And that tree tradition continues today. Thus you’ll see grand Christmas trees featured all over Strasbourg especially on Place Kléber, the main square. Christmas Markets in Provence are relatively new, but Avignon and Aix have fabulous holiday markets now and Marseilles is known for its santons (little saints) marketplace.
To honor the birth of the baby Jesus, the manger (la crèche) originated in the 12th century in France as part of liturgical drama. At that time, the manger itself resembled an altar; it was placed inside the church in a prominent place during the season. The family of Saint Francis of Assisi introduced the popular nativity scene idea to Avignon in Provence around 1330. When the French Revolution shut the doors of churches, locals cleverly continued their crèche traditions by taking them into their homes in miniaturized versions.
By the 16th century the home crèche began featuring small figurines of not only the holy family but also favorite townspeople like the baker, mayor, fishmonger, or priest. Today, the Christmas crèche is popular all over France, but Strasbourg features Alsatian/German themes in their crèche characters that are often dressed in Alsatian garb. Provence santons, on the other hand, often wear the pretty Provençal colors and feature local professions as well as much loved figures like Yves Montand!
The holiday foods in Strasbourg and Provence are naturally tailored to local tastes. In Strasbourg, there’s plenty of bredele, the delicious and colorful butter cookies, plus kouglof or kougelhopf (bunt cake). Gigantic pretzels (and beer) figure prominently, along with roasted chestnuts and plenty of sauerkraut. And naturally, gingerbread is everywhere in Alsace. I particularly enjoyed a morning-long visit with the queen of Strasbourg gingerbread, Mireille Oster; her spiced breads, cookies, cakes, candies, and loaves are world famous. (I shipped home 12 pounds of her temptations.)
In Provence there’s lots of nougat, sugared fruit, and of course delicious calisson from Aix-en-Provence (my all-time favorite French cookie). Another Provençal favorite is fougasse, a specialty bread, which can be sweet or earthy and filled with such goodies as tomatoes, olives, cheese, and anchovies.
Alsace wine is very popular and the holidays there feature mulled wine with spices (gluhwein). One of my favorite sites in Strasbourg was a stall selling warm wine AND escargot! Provence also features mulled wine around the holidays but many use local Provençal wines; I have it on good authority that a few sneak in some Châteauneuf-du-Pape for a high brow brew.
For the midnight meal after Christmas mass, Alsatians often sit down to traditional goose, potatoes, and choucroute (sauerkraut), although oysters and foie gras may appear. Instead of the Buche de Noël (Yule log) served in Provence and elsewhere in France, Strasbourg will more likely be serving fruit tarts or strudel for dessert.
Of course Provence out does them all with its elaborate “great supper” consisting of 7 lean dishes (in memory of the 7 sufferings of Mary). These 7 lean dishes can include such favorites as spinach and cod, omelettes, snails, seafood, garlic soup, and ratatouille, but never any meat. It’s served with 13 bread rolls then followed by 13 desserts. The 13 desserts remain on the table for 3 days and may include: dried figs, almonds, raisons, hazelnuts, nougat, olive bread, quince cheese, crystallized fruit (especially that produced in Apt or Carpentras), waffles, and fresh fruit.
On Christmas day, both regions may have turkey with chestnut stuffing and Christmas sweetmeats, as well as foie gras, oysters, and expensive cheeses. And of course all serve Champagne! And all across France, children everywhere awaken to find presents in the shoes they’ve left out for Père Noël, as well as presents on the family Christmas tree. (Nobody hangs up stockings here.)
I can highly recommend a visit to Strasbourg during the holidays. Most of the activities are free and the price of food, wine, and holiday trinkets is very reasonable. With the wonderful French trains, you can be there in a few hours from the south of France. And it’s so easy to haul all your treasures back on the train (or overseas), you may be tempted to take along an empty suitcase! (Don’t forget you can always go to La Poste and buy a pre-paid international box in which to ship your goodies home. I confess the Strasbourg La Poste office knows me by face now.)
Where ever you are in France or elsewhere for the holiday season, here’s hoping you’ll enjoy an equally fabulous Christmas. Just remember to say Joyeux Noël to everyone you meet. Happy Holidays!
PS: If you are still looking for a couple Christmas gifts, order a copy (or several) of PJ’s Intoxicating France book series.