Christmas and Christmas Markets in Strasbourg and Alsace

Information on Christmas traditions in Alsace; the Christmas wreath, Christmas trees, Saint Nicolas and the Crèche. Also information on the famous Alsace Christmas markets...

The Christmas season in Alsace begins towards the end of November with the appearance of wreaths made up of ribbons interwoven into branches of fir trees, holly and bay. There are four candles on the wreath which are lit on each of the four Sundays of Advent which precede Christmas.

Saint Nicolas

On the day of Saint Nicolas, 6 December, the patron saint of school children rewards youngsters who have been good by distributing treats in the form of cakes and toys. He is accompanied by Hans Trapp who is on hand to punish those children who have misbehaved with a gift of a stick dipped in vinegar or the threat of taking them away.

Saint Nicolas may also set up a home in a chalet in the main square of a town and welcome children who wish to visit him. The name of Santa Claus derives from Saint Nicolas.

The Crèche

The Christmas crib, or crèche, is an important decoration which some villages maintain with a "living crèche" which has live animals, donkeys, goats and sheep.

Sapin de Noël

The idea of the tree came from Alsace, then part of Germany, in the 14th century. It is said to have been introduced by Princess Hélène de Mecklembourg, on her marriage to the Duke of Orléans, heir to the French throne. The first recorded mention of a Christmas tree can be found in a document dating from 1521 which is on display in the Bibliothèque Humaniste in Sélestat.

Christmas trees are brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve.

The original decorations were apples and walnuts. Legend has it that in 1858 the harvest failed and the glassmakers of Meisenthal made glass versions of the decorations. Such was the success of the glass baubles that the manufacturers decided to continue with their production and soon the decorations spread across the world. The forest in Grendelbruch looks magical in December with lights on the trees.

Christmas Markets

Christmas markets can be found throughout Alsace from the end of November. They may take place for one day only or for the whole of the Christmas period from Saint Catherine's Day (25 November) to Epiphany. Markets range in size from a small collection of stalls in a village hall to the Christkindelsmarik in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg

Strasbourg's Christmas market (Christkindelsmarik) is the oldest and most significant in Alsace and France. The first Christkindelsmarik took place in 1570. The chalets and stalls of the main market spread around Place de la Cathédrale; stalls can also be found in squares around the city including Place Gutenberg, Place Broglie (traditional market), rue de la Comédie, Place Kléber (bredle biscuit and cake market), Petite France (farmers' market) and Place de la Gare.

Colmar

The second largest Christmas market after Strasbourg, Colmar Market actually takes place in four different locations: Place Jeanne d'Arc specialises in food; crafts and food are sold in Place de l'Ancienne Douane; Place des Six Montagnes Noires has toys and sweets for children, and pine trees, holly, ivy and decorations are sold on Place des Dominicans.

Sélestat

Sélestat - the town where the first mention of a tree with decorations was made - specialises in a Christmas tree market.

Ribeauvillé

This market recreates Christmas in the Middle Ages with fire-eaters, a medieval village and music and dancing from troubadours.

Neuf-Brisach

The time of Louis XIV is the background for the celebrations in the town with a "Vauban" market complete with actors in period costume and demonstrations of the traditional skills and crafts.

Gueberschwihr

Gueberschwihr market mixes the traditions of Alsace with those of Provence and has a living crèche.

Christmas Specialities

Many types of biscuits are baked at Christmas. These include Spritzbredle (almond shortbreads), Nusshiffele (walnut biscuits) and Himmelgestirn (almond biscuits).

Other specialities include:

  • Bredele: Small cakes or biscuits traditionally flavoured with aniseed, cinnamon, marzipan, ginger and honey. They are known as bredela in the Haut Rhin and bredle in Strasbourg
  • Berawecka: A cake made with a mixture of dried fruit, nuts and spices which may contain pears, apples, dates, prunes, figs, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts
  • Foie Gras: Alsace is one of the major regions in France to specialise in goose liver paté
  • Christmas beer: Although a wine-growing region, Alsace is also home to major breweries. At Christmas, they produce special strong ales often with a spicy flavour

Christkindel

Christkindel (which translates as Christ child) is a fairy-like girl who travels from house to house on Christmas Eve. She assesses the behaviour of children and rewards those who are good with presents. Hans Trapp also travels with the Christkindel and threatens bad children with being taken away to the woods.

Le Réveillon

Le Réveillon is the Christmas Eve celebration. The tradition in Alsace is to place a log in the fire before leaving to attend Midnight Mass and then return to a warm home and a meal of Kuttelschrnauss which consists of sausages, hams, and black pudding.

Christmas Day

On Christmas day seafood and local foie gras traditionally begin the meal, followed by a Christmas Baeckeoffe or roast goose and ending with a Chrischtstolle cake made with almonds, sultanas and lemon zest.

Saint-Etienne

The two départments of Alsace, along with Moselle (57), are the only three departments in France to celebrate Saint Steven's day. It is the first day of the 12 days of Christmas, also known as the "little year". The holiday originates as the day employers began their search for new servants to replace those whose annual contract had finished on Christmas day.

In 1892, while under German rule, a law was passed that granted two extra public holidays (the second being Good Friday) to communes in the region with a mixed or Protestant church. This brought Alsace and Moselle in line with German holidays. Following the First World War, Alsace and Moselle were able to keep the holidays as a reward for their loyalty to France.

Epiphany

The twelfth day after Christmas is Epiphany which marks the end of festivities in Alsace. It's claimed as the day the three kings were to have reached the baby Jesus, and it's the day the santons - small figurines of the kings - are put into the crèche. A galette (tart), made with almond paste, is prepared in their honour. The tree and decorations are taken down at the end of the day.

Further Information