Long ago, in December 1570, the first Christmas market was held on a cobblestoned square in front of a towering Gothic cathedral. Torches and candles lit the wintry darkness. Religious objects and decorations were offered for sale. A bowl of steaming stew might have been ladled from a cauldron over an open fire to entice passersby to linger and warm themselves.
Now, 445 years later, this fairy tale-like tradition continues in the “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg, France.
Strasbourg is situated in the Alsace region on France’s eastern border, across the Rhine River from Germany. Its’ strategic location dates back to 12 BC where, as part of the Roman Empire, it became the crossroads of Europe. Frequented by both travelers and invaders, Strasbourg has bounced back and forth repeatedly in political tugs of war. At the end of WWII, Germany returned the city to France for the last time. It retains strong remnants of Franco-German culture and tradition from the entwined history.
The original “centre-ville” is a small island formed by branches of the River Ill [La Grande Île]. Here, the red sandstone Cathedral is the most striking architectural feature. Construction begun in 1176 was finally completed in 1439. An impressive 263 years of engineering, masonry, and carpentry featuring a single Gothic spire which rises 142 meters [466 feet]!
The oldest Christmas Market is also one of Europe’s largest. Three hundred cottage-like wooden stalls offer food, drink, and seasonal goodies along with an impressive array of gifts and decorations. A 30-meter fir tree from the mountains is beautifully decorated in Place Kléber. The market officially opens the last weekend of November. This year we made plans early, knowing the crowds are daunting. It didn’t turn out to be that way.
Late Friday afternoon began with the usual glowing stalls selling festive wares, ambient street decorations, lights sparkling in cold, wintry dusk. It smelled even better. Aromas of roasting chestnuts, gingerbread, grilled brats and sauerkraut, mingled with steaming vats of spiced vin chaud or glühwein [hot wine].
While Mark was on his assigned mission of photographing the charm that transforms Strasbourg into Christmas wonderland, I busied myself locating the best cup of vin chaud. It is a serious task. They are not all alike!
Unsuccessful initial research shooed me away from the bustling cathedral area. Winding my way to La Petite France, the old tanners district near the river locks, I found a small outcropping of stalls. Here was the place. “Le meilleur vin chaud dans la marché” [the very best in the whole market]. Not gagging-ly sweet, not cloyingly spiced, just good quality red wine, perfectly heated with the right amount of subtle spice. I was scientifically sure. The vendor beamed when I told him this “Truth”.
This year’s market was very different for several reasons. First were the roadblocks to cars entering the city center. We parked outside and walked in. Secondly, there were heavily armed police and military positioned on every bridge, square, and corner intersection. In teams of two or three, they stood, walked about, or drove slowly down the [now] pedestrian-only streets. We meandered leisurely through even the most popular areas without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. At 7:00PM the stalls promptly boarded up. It was not a typical opening night.
We slipped into a wine bar to warm up. The owner told us this was the first year he could look out the windows and see across the street. Normally it would be a wall-to-wall crush of people until late in the evening.
Two weeks before, November 13, was a tragic night in Paris. Terrorists killed 130 people and injured 400 others. France is still tender, reeling from an assault on the lifestyle and young lives in a proud democratic republic.
We paused next to a memorial for Paris victims near the towering Christmas tree. We noted the French tri-color worked into holiday decorating. These outpourings of nationalism, part memoriam and part act of defiance were not surprising. After a tragedy, solidarity and resilience are often displayed this way.
Still, it can be difficult to know how to move on when inexplicable things happen. We live in Paris and didn’t know the victims. But we learned of them.
The story about the café owner of La Belle Équipe is particularly poignant. One of the shootings occurred at this popular neighborhood bistro. His wife was among the fatalities. She died on the floor, in his arms. This man is Jewish. His wife was Muslim. They have a son. Their family represents the healthy diversity permeating Paris and France.
After burying the mother of his son, the still grieving owner said it was out of the question to close his café. “We must go to concerts. We must sit on terraces. We can still smile with scars on our face. We will lick our wounds and live with our scars. It doesn’t stop us. There is no choice.”
I am struck by this difficult truth after disaster strikes. Of course he is right. One way to reaffirm hope is to return to the things we normally do. Going to work, eating in restaurants with friends, attending concerts, playing with children, musing over coffee on a terrace, visiting museums, strolling through a Christmas market…
The ability to persevere over hundreds of years to complete the building of a cathedral is the same sentiment that propels us forward when heartbreaking events happen. Giving up is not a choice. Instead, as we lean into the collective embrace of family, friends and community, we hold onto our hope for the future as tightly as we can.
Wishing you and yours a warm holiday season of togetherness.
[All photos courtesy of MEU, in-house photographer extraordinaire.]