Strasbourg, with its half-timbered houses, carved gables and cobbled streets is a storybook city all year round. But at Christmas, with streets garlanded in pine boughs and lights, and facades decorated with toys, stockings and roof-climbing Santas, the whole downtown becomes a holiday fantasy. Starting on Nov 24 this year and running until New Year’s Eve, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market, a tradition that originated in Germany, fills the city with hundreds of wooden stalls overflowing with everything from brilliantly colored ornaments and wooden toys to finely crafted furniture as well as food stands full of toasted bretzels (big, soft Alsatian pretzels) or seasonal sweets like stollen, spicy lebkuchen, and decorated gingerbreads. While marchés de Noël take place all over Alsace and have spread throughout France, Strasbourg’s is the country’s oldest, dating to 1570.

Over the centuries it has expanded into several separate marchés scattered throughout the city. The Christkindelsmärik, on the Place Broglie, is the largest—horse-drawn carriages leave from the Place on a tour of the festive downtown area. On the Place du Château, the market surrounds a skating rink where revelers young and old spin or wobble to the tune of Christmas songs, pausing to warm up with mugs of glühwein (vin chaud, or hot spiced wine) or hot chocolate. At the heart of it all is the market’s original site, the Place de la Cathédrale, where the magnificent Gothic cathedral not only towers over its own cluster of brightly lit stands, but also hosts concerts during the Christmas season. And smaller markets are tucked into available spaces all over town, for a total of 12 in 2011. It’s an instant plunge into the holiday spirit.

Christmas markets are found in almost every city and town in Alsace, including Colmar, Mulhouse, Obernai, Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of France Today; updated in December 2012

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