The Observer

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Market!

The wooden chalets sprouting up from Strasbourg to New York on the first days of December herald the return of an old Alsatian tradition that has become a world-wide phenomenon: the Christmas market! In his trademark tongue-in-cheek style, our columnist dissects this custom.
The Strasbourg Christmas market, in Alsace.

Christmas may come but once a year, but nowadays it seems to last forever. In the U.S. it’s the culmination of a shopping marathon starting with Labor Day, wending through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and ending when Saint Nick alights upon roofs throughout the land in a spirit of peace, goodwill, etc. Here in France, Christmas used to be less commercial, with the emphasis on religious, family-focused celebrations. But the barbarians began slipping through the gate a few decades ago and now occupy Main Street. They have even infiltrated the traditional Christmas market market. No, that’s not a typo. Le marché de Noël, once an opportunity for locals to sell handmade decorations and traditional foodstuffs, has become a mishmash of commerce and kitsch.

The origins of Christmas markets lie in medieval winter celebrations in Germany and German-speaking regions. Many were organized to celebrate particular saints, and all involved eating and drinking copious amounts. One highlight was the market in honor of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas, whence Santa Claus), when, in addition to gorging themselves, revelers would give gifts to the poor. But the adulation of Nicholas & Co. ruffled the promoters of the Reformation, who reshaped the bacchic traditions as an homage to Christkindl, or Christ Child. These convivial celebrations evolved to become marketplaces, Christkindlmärkte, offering food, drink, decorations, and trinkets to serve as gifts. One of the biggest such fairs was in the Alsatian capital, Strasbourg. Now an administrative region of France, Alsace has been under German control several times since the 17th century and prides itself on a culture that straddles the Rhine River. Its Christmas market – the oldest and biggest in France – reflects the city’s Franco-German culture, to the extent that it bears two names: le Marché de Noël in French and Christkindelsmärik in Alsatian. Despite styling itself as la capitale de Noël, Strasbourg doesn’t have a monopoly.

Christmas markets have been celebrated for centuries in towns and villages across the region and in neighboring Lorraine, which shares Alsace’s German roots. Traditionally, these marchés de Noël were organized around a nativity scene and featured wooden chalets selling Christmas specialties such as gingerbread and bereweka cakes, along with hand-made ornaments and decorations. Visitors would stroll from stall to stall, sipping vin chaud (mulled wine), munching on bredele (the forerunner of pretzels), and listening to seasonal music amid the waft of roasting chestnuts. Visiting the local marché de Noël was an essential part of a time-honored Christmas experience.

How things have changed. From the mid-1980s onwards, these annual happenings became less about “Christmas” and more about “markets.” In France, municipalities country-wide awoke to the commercial appeal of an event that would draw hordes of tourists. Retailers saw the opportunity to shift scads of merchandise by giving it a Christmassy veneer, while manufacturers drooled at the prospect of thousands of captive customers, all lulled by the spirit of goodwill (or other seasonal spirits) and willing to overspend.

Of course, the commercial roots of modern-day Christmas are not confined to France. In the U.S., the Santa Claus figure – drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast – was popularized by Coca-Cola, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Montgomery Ward, and the Christmas “pickle” ornament by Woolworth. Today, though, Christmas markets have gone global. Cookie-cutter wooden chalets, tacky goods, and ersatz vin chaud can be found anywhere from Baltimore to Shanghai. There is even a hit parade of Best Christmas Markets and Best Christmas Lights, in which destinations are ranked for attractiveness, alongside listings for the world’s Most Dog-Friendly Countries and Weirdest Festivals.

Arguably, it’s in France that the commercialization has become the most noticeable. Food stalls that once offered cinnamon-laced cookies now peddle panini, kebabs, tacos, and even Thai-style noodles. The merchandise, too, has been transformed. Decorations and glassware have made way for kitschy knickknacks like Santa-festooned dishtowels, flashing reindeer antlers, and sequined snoods, which, on closer inspection, are all manufactured in Asia. To combat the invasion, the French anti-fraud office runs inspection campaigns on Christmas markets nationwide. The average incident rate for the past five years is around 21%, with infringements ranging from mislabeling to outright fraud: think “caviar” made from lentils cooked in fish broth!

In some cases, the Christmas market has become almost a caricature of itself, fragmenting into different sub-genres. Back in Germany, where everything began, the raunchy Saint Pauli district of Hamburg has a market offering gadgets that would make a longshoreman blush, along with striptease, lapdancing, and mulled wine spiked with Jack Daniel’s. Farther south, in Munich and Cologne, LGBTQ markets with drag queen shows are a regular feature. France is not quite there yet, though a stallholder in a market in Lorraine was recently shuttered for offering wares that definitely put the X in Xmas.

Amid the tinsel and tat, it’s tempting to conclude that we’ve reached Peak Christmas Market. But the tide is definitely turning, and a deliberate effort is being made to get back to basics. Strasbourg even organizes an alternative market offering a different take on Christmas traditions. Held in parallel with the main market, le marché “off” focuses on sensible consumption, fair trade, and barter; the food is organic, the art non-industrial. Meanwhile, the focus is shifting back from adults to children, who, after all, lie at the heart of Christmas. Whole sections of several marchés de Noël are given over to kids’ games, shows, face-painting, and craft workshops. Such initiatives are multiplying all over France. So, as the holiday season hits full swing, you may well find a market that puts the traditional “merry” back in Christmas. Joyeux Noël !

Article published in the December 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.