Follow the golden network of lights to Notre-Dame de Strasbourg this December, and you will find yourself at the heart of one of Europe's most magical Christmas markets. The ornate Gothic cathedral towers over her mediaeval neighbours like a crown jewel, shining bright above the glimmer and glow of the market stalls below.
Strasbourg's Christmas market opened this year on November 24 for the start of its 443rd year, making it the oldest one in France and one of the oldest in Europe. With 300 trading stalls, it is also one of Europe's largest.
Drawing the crowds
Attracting more than two million tourists a year, in addition to thousands of Alsatian regulars, the Strasbourg Christmas market comprises several small markets all around the heart of the city, making one grand affair to tempt all of your senses.
A market has been part of the holiday season in Strasbourg since the Middle Ages, when the celebration of St Nicholas in early December was marked with a one-day market where residents gave gifts to children.
In 1570, the city launched the precursor to today's market, calling it the Christkindelsmärik (Market of the Christ Child) and installing it in Place Broglie, where it is still found today. Since the 1990s, the modern market has expanded throughout the heart of Strasbourg, hosting 300 chalets and market stalls.
Having grown so readily over the past 20 years, market organisers are careful to not let quantity overshadow quality. "We always look to maintain and improve the quality and authenticity of the products," says Géraldine Amar, of the Strasbourg tourist office.
For regional foods, visitors gather in Place des Meuniers. At Place d'Austerlitz, one can take in the smells and tastes of local produce, including the Bredle market with its traditional Christmas biscuits, as well as wines at Couronne d'Or. For local products and crafts, be sure to visit the artisan market in Place de la Gare in front of the train station. At these and the other markets around town, visitors can enjoy buying pastries, confectionary, breads, toys, handcrafts, ornaments, decorations and pottery, to name just some of the many products on offer.
Wherever you stand in the market, your eyes will be drawn by the garlands, decorations, lights, nativity scenes, and glowing trees that wrap the city up like one giant gift. Nearly 600 trees are decorated around town, including 90 fir trees brought in especially for the market. The decorating of trees at Christmastime is a tradition that reputedly started in the Alsace region. Strasbourg has a manuscript dating as far back as 1605 that describes the placing of decorated fir trees in the city's guild houses. (see sidebar)
The biggest tree in today's market adorns Place Kléber and is the tallest natural tree to be decorated in all of Europe, standing at 30 metres high. Organisers search for this giant evergreen between June and September. A dozen technicians then work their magic for three weeks in November to produce the market's stunning green centrepiece.
Focusing on tradition
Every aspect of today's market seems to focus on tradition. Whether its handcrafted products, regional baked treats, or the decorating of trees, the market relies on tradition to appeal to tourists both young and old.
"The key to the market's success lay, first of all, in her historical tradition," says Amar.
To appreciate the history of the market, for example, visitors can visit Christkindelsmärik in Place Broglie or pay tribute to Strasbourg residents who once left presents for the poor underneath the market tree by giving to charity in the Village of Sharing.
Traditional concerts are offered throughout the Christmas market period at the city's various churches.
Christmas is all about children, and with mediaeval origins steeped in Strasbourg's regard for children, it is only natural that the market include a Children's Village. Youths feel right at home amidst the sights and sounds of the season with storytelling, creative and educational activities to engage their young minds.
Every year another nation is invited to take part in the market and share its own holiday traditions in Strasbourg. Georgia received the invitation this year and will set up a small Georgian village in Place Gutenberg, complete with foods and products, where visitors can learn about the "ancient but largely unknown traditions" of Georgia, says Amar.
For the past 21 years, the market has sought to build a new tradition by sharing Strasbourg's humanist values through various concerts, exhibitions, meetings and actions of solidarity focused on the spirit of openness, sharing and generosity.
Whether it's a youngster enjoying the Children's Village, a grandmother donating gifts under the big tree, or a couple basking in the romance of the glistening lights, everyone can wrap themselves in holiday traditions this year in the capital of Alsace.
Strasbourg, Capital of Christmas – the official name of the market – runs between November 24 and December 31, 2012.
To find out more, visit the market's homepage.