Want to get to the root of our Christmas traditions? Don’t bother with the Holy Land or the North Pole. Head for France, the birthplace of a delightful European tradition called the Christmas market.
Okay, so you know all about Christmas, but do you know where the bulk of your Christmas traditions come from? Not from the Middle East, but from Europe, and many of them aren’t even Christian.
To get to the bottom of this, you have to head for that part of eastern France known as the Alsace. Its capital — and perhaps the capital of Christmas as we know it — is Strasbourg.
It’s a political center of the European Union, whose parliament meets here. France’s largest university is here, with nearly 50,000 students, of whom maybe 20,000 are from other countries, including the United States. At any given moment. you may hear a dozen different languages on the street.
The vibe here is young and cosmopolitan, relaxed and friendly. If it were bigger and more self-conscious, it would be Paris. Then again, if Paris were more modern, better-educated and mellow, it would be Strasbourg.
The city sits just across the Rhine from Germany. That fact of geography has produced a lot of grief here. Strasbourg itself has changed hands more times than a Hertz rental car. People can still point you to Place Broglie, the square where Nazi troops used to goose-step through their daily drills in World War 2.
Today, you can take a French city bus to the German town of Kehl and no one on either side of the Rhine will even ask for your passport. But people don’t flock here in December from all over Europe to commemorate the Battle of the Bulge. They come to celebrate Christmas.
Every December, cities throughout Europe fill their main squares with what are known as Christmas markets, The first, and many say still the best, is in Strasbourg.
IF YOU GO
You can fly into Strasbourg or take the TGV high-speed train from Paris. The flight takes an hour, the TGV two and a half, but the train trip is more comfortable and view a lot nicer. Hotels during the Christmas market season book solid months in advance, so book early!
You’ll want to stay on or close to the Ile Centrale to be within easy reach of the Christmas action. If you have to stay farther afield, Strasbourg’s public transportation system is a joy to use. Their trams run about every four minutes, sleek and quiet, with huge windows. The automated ticket machines operate in your choice of five languages.
It’s also cheap. For about than US$8, a single pass lets up to three people ride for 24 hours. This is how you do mass urban transit.
The biggest Christmas markets in Strasbourg are around le Cathedral on the ile Centrale, the central island formed by the rivers Ill and Rhine.
Families stroll among the stalls with their dogs. Street musicians play. The night streets glow with Christmas lights. Steam from cooking pots and vats of hot drinks fills the frigid air. A towering Christmas 80 feet high, festooned with decorations the size of soccer balls, stands in the middle of Place Kleber.
There’s also a temporary ice skating rink. It’s next to le Cathedral, which is highly appropriate; a lot of those would-be skaters are in dire need of prayer!
Le Cathedral is massive. You can’t get lost in Strasbourg as long as you can see it, and you can see it for miles. It was once the tallest cathedral in the world and for a small fee, you can climb the stairs to the top of the spire. People say the view is breathtaking.
I’ll take their word for it.
Back in 2000, a group of Muslim extremists wanted to blow up “le Cathedral.” When German police foiled their plans, they settled on a different target a year later.
A couple of high-rise buildings in New York City.
The Alsace has been fought over by France and Germany for centuries. It explains why so many towns around the city have German names, and so many homes are built in the old German style, with timbered supports showing on the exterior.
Strasbourg itself, however, was spared the brutal house-to-house fighting that went on elsewhere in the Alsace during World War 2. That explains why you’ll find its charming little old town, the former tanners’ quarter now known as la Petite France, still intact.
They drink everything hot here in December, — even orange juice — and for good reason! The most popular drink is mulled wine known in French as vin chaud.
Alsace has its own unique regional cuisine, things like buckwheat crepes, choucroute garni and tarte flambeé. Gingerbread here is full of big chunks of ginger and covered with molasses.
Few associate beer with France, but the biere de Noël from the Kronenbourg brewery could give Mexico’s famed Noche Buena some tough competition. And the brewery does tours.
One thing that may surprise you is that, while you’re awash in all things Christmas, there’s little reference to Christ. As it turns out, many of our Christmas traditions are actually pagan rather than Christian — starting with your Christmas tree, which was invented in Strasbourg back in the 1600s.
This is where you find out that pagans weren’t necessarily the wild-eyed, drunken, sex-obsessed heathens we’ve been taught. Those actually came later.
We call them college kids on spring break.
There are reasons enough to visit this city the rest of the year, but it’s during the Christmas season that Strasbourg truly shines.
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