When I read that Strasbourg is “the Christmas capital of Europe,” I knew I could expect a festive mood, lights and holiday magic. What I didn’t expect was a city that gave you the feeling that if you were to bite into any of its buildings, they would taste like gingerbread and chocolate.
I’ve seen my fair share of festive decorations in European cities: the lavishness of Harrods in London; the hanging Christmas tree in the Galleries Lafayette in Paris; the quaint Christmas market in Basel, Switzerland, smelling of mulled wine and hot chocolate. But if there is a prize for being Christmassy to the point where you might wonder if this is where Santa actually lives (at least on his off-season) it most definitely goes to Strasbourg.
Located in the east of France (yes, there’s an airport), with a population of around 300,000 very fashion-savvy people, it is evident that it’s gorgeous throughout the whole year. The German and French influences have blended beautifully in its architecture and city planning.
And if you choose to go to Strasbourg after mid-November through December, it will become clear to you why many call it the “Christmas Capital of Europe.”
As you approach downtown Strasbourg, you might be lucky to pass by a brocante, a flea market, or a vide-grenier, if you will, where you’ll find wonderful gems of decor, kitchenware and furniture. The people walking around are in their carefully curated fashion, which is not a surprise for this part of Europe.
Coming closer to the center, cafés, bakeries and bistros become more frequent, until you find yourself right in the middle of houses that appear to be dipped in cocoa and roofs that look like whipped cream-covered gingerbread. There are people everywhere, and everyone’s either smiling, taking photos, shopping in the various stalls or talking and laughing over the steam of warm drinks between them.
If you’re not distracted by the sound of cynicism leaving your body (with haste!), you will reach the cathedral, which you will find if you follow its tower visible from almost everywhere. After all, Strasbourg’s center is not very big. And there are no words to describe the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. You may want to take several million photos of it, but try this: lower your camera and just look carefully at the cathedral, while taking in every possible nook and cranny of it – and there are many. It is one of the most detailed facades I’ve seen in my life, one that makes you wonder what could have been happening in the heads of those who designed and built it! The inside of it is no less breathtaking, offering a lovely spiritual breather in contrast to the buzz outside.
While you’re there, you can’t miss the Palais Rohan, the prince-bishop’s residence right next to the cathedral. It used to host a number of French monarchs – Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Joséphine and Charles X, among them. Today it houses three museums: the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts , all of which are definitely worth a visit. You can attach a glimpse in the video, below.
When I was done with the museums, it was getting dark. But in downtown Strasbourg this is good news – finally the festive lights can shine in all their glory.
As the lights descend, maybe go to Strasbourg’s own Galleries Lafayette for some Christmas shopping, or try some of the most mouth-watering pastries and chocolate sweets you’ve ever tasted, while waiting for happy hour to begin. Because when it does, you should clink your vin chaud glasses in celebration. You’ve just had an amazing day in one of the best holiday destinations in Europe!
France’s biggest, fanciest, most touristy Christmas market is indeed, as Jana says, in Strasbourg. It’s modeled after the world famous Christmas markets in Germany (Strasbourg used to be part of Germany) and it truly is gigantic. If you go, chances are, you’ll rub shoulders with tourists from Belgium, Germany, England, the Netherlands, you name it. There are also visitors from France, of course, but you may not easily discern it from the polyglotte voices you hear around you.
So if you’d rather experience Christmas the French way, head south to Provence. There you’ll find festive local markets, parades like the bravade calendale in Aix-en-Provence, and traditions like the crèche Provençale and the treize desserts. Plus, needless to say, you’ll have much better weather than way up north.
There are Christmas markets all through Provence, in larger towns like Avignon and Aix-en-Provence as well as smaller villages, with local foods and crafts galore. They draw crowds mostly from the region, so you’ll be able to enjoy a French Christmas amongst the French.
The most famous local crafts you’ll find are the santons, those cute little figurines that depict characters from village life like the baker, the fishwife and the scissor grinder. Their origin story is interesting, as it goes way back to the French Revolution and, surprisingly, to Christmas.
Nativity scenes, called crèches, were banned by the zealots of the French Revolution, as part of their war against the Church. So, one day a clever Provençal artist invented santons and turned the crèche into a “village scene,” using his figurines in place of the usual Biblical characters. The leaders of the Revolution were apparently too busy to notice that santon means “little saint,” and a new tradition—the crèche Provençale—was born.
Today, you’ll find both religious crèches and crèches Provençale all over at Christmastime, and the biggest ones can include hundreds of little santons—an impressive sight!
Midnight mass is also an important part of Christmas in Provence and—true to the area’s rural history—in some churches a newborn lamb is brought into the church to symbolize the newborn baby Jesus. The lamb arrives accompanied by local shepherds and ladies in traditional dress, in a procession called the pastrage.
And then there’s the food! The Christmas Eve meal in Provence is the gros souper (big supper), which includes the treize desserts (thirteen desserts.) There is a lot of religious symbolism here, like the three white tablecloths representing the holy trinity, and the seven dishes of the gros souper, which represent Mary’s sorrows.
There is symbolism in the treize desserts as well, starting with the number 13, which represents the number of people at the Last Supper. Each family can decide what to serve but the desserts usually includes fruits and nuts, candies and some sort of sweetened bread. There are two kinds of nougat, one white and one black, symbolizing good and evil, as well as the famous calisson cookies from Aix.
As time goes on, fewer families are celebrating with the gros souper and the treize desserts, but they still represent an important part of life in Provence—a great place to experience a real French Christmas.
Jana Misho is the author of “Almost Parisian: How To Survive Your Late Twenties in Paris” and “Anais from Montmartre.” She writes things she wants to read and is inspired by art, people and obscure Parisian cafés. Probably the only person in the world who has a tattoo of Tour Montparnasse. Her third novel “Lulu” is coming to Amazon soon
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the best-selling An Insider’s Guide to Provence as well as the travel memoirs One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence.