A Very Merry French Christmas
Strands upon strands of twinkling lights hang above you. Strange but delightful smells of stinky cheeses mixing and mingling with the sweet, spicy notes of vin chaud fill the air. Chestnuts are quite literally roasting on an open fire. Chalets filled with wooden toys, leather goods, scarves, ornaments, soaps, candles, teas, pain d’épices (spiced bread), chichis (churros), barbe à papa (cotton candy), and chocolat chaud line the path throughout this winter wonderland. La grande roue (ferris wheel) towers overhead and provides irresistible views of the Marché de Noël below, the large sapin de Noël (Christmas tree) the shining star in the center of it all.
Bienvenue! Welcome to a Christmas market in France!
According to Annie and Elyse of the Join Us in France podcast, “the first documented mention of a specific Christmas market was in the 1300s in Germany.” Originating from Germanic culture, these markets began as a part of the festival of St. Nicholas and focused on selling small gifts for children. Today they continue to awaken the child in each of us.
The market in my city of Amiens is quite impressive. The largest Christmas market in northern France (and celebrating 20 years of holiday cheer this year!), its 130 bright red chalets stretch for over a mile. The market opens in late November and can be enjoyed all the way through December 30. I love that in Amiens, the market is completely integrated into centre ville. This means that all December long, no matter where you go in the city center, you’re at the Marché de Noël.
Another holiday treat in Amiens: the free Chroma light and sound show that runs nightly at the Cathedral Notre Dame. The projected colors in the photo below show the intricate colors and details that once decorated this gothic façade (La Cathédrale Notre Dame d’Amiens was built in the 1200s).
On a Wednesday in December I took a solo day trip to Arras, France (a simple 45 minute train ride from Amiens). This small town with a population of under 50,000 was packed with charm, and the Christmas market definitely followed suit. Nestled between the Flemish buildings that surround the Grand’Place, this market had chalets big enough to walk inside (I hadn’t seen this in Amiens). I strolled along the frosted red carpet and tasted the delicacies of Arras including a coeur d’Arras (a heart shaped spiced cookie).
December 19 was such a treat. Not only was Tony with me, but we got to join our good friends Megan and Kevin in Paris. Here we meandered through the Christmas Market in the Jardin des Tuileries, sipping vin chaud (toujours - always) and taking selfies with the hot weather Santa in a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. We definitely all had la banane!
(avoir la banane = to have a big smile on your face)
And what would a Christmas in France be without a visit to the capital of Christmas itself? This year Tony and I chose to spend our Christmas abroad in Strasbourg, France. I understood immediately how this city earned its title. I woke up on Christmas Eve feeling a childish giddiness that I hadn’t experience, well, since I was a child. I felt pure joy radiating throughout my being and I was unable to contain it as I stood in line at Naegel to pick up our bûche de Noël and étoiles à la cannelle for later that evening and Christmas day. There were several hundred people waiting beneath the twinkling lights to pick up their pre-orders for celebrations with families and friends. I loved feeling a part of the tradition.
Paris has over a dozen Christmas markets in 41 square miles, and Strasbourg has nine markets in about 30 square miles. It seems you run into a market every time you turn a corner. Along with even more vin chaud, Tony and I enjoyed bretzels topped with raclette and jambon. I tasted a bretzel sucré (think pretzel crossed with donut), and we popped into several cozy bars to grab bières de Noël with tarte flambée, a cracker thin pizza topped with crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions, and lardons. We also had one with mushrooms, and another with Munster and cranberries. We may have gone a little overboard on this regional snack… but we just couldn’t get enough! Binchstub, Caupona Taverne, and Le Troquet des Kneckes were a few of our favorite tarte flambée spots.
As the Cathedral Notre Dame of Strasbourg towered over us, its bells adding even more charm to the festivities, I couldn’t help but take a deep breath of the crisp winter air, taking a good look around me and making a mental picture of a Christmas to remember.
Simply put, France does Noël so well. I will never forget this and know that many of these traditions will continue to be a part of our Christmases, wherever we are in the world.
Joyeuses fêtes et bonne année à tous!
Warmest of holiday wishes from me to you!
PS: Tony and I are now in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg and there is at least one Christmas Market still open. We went today and I finally got tartiflette, a hot dish made with potatoes, Reblochon cheese, and lardons. I love that we are stretching this holiday magic just a little bit further. :)