Joyeux Noel! Christmas Magic in France
By Diane Meader Leibinger
One of the best kept Yuletide secrets is the fairy-tale village Christmas markets and the celebrations hidden throughout the Alsace wine region of north eastern France.
Whenever one thinks of visiting a Christmas market in Europe they immediately want to go to Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. However beautiful they are, and I have been to many, many wonderful Christmas markets in these countries, my travel heart is with the Alsace region in France during the Christmas season.
The villages of Alsace are plentiful with their warm and charming architecture. It is an Alsatian tradition for half-timbered houses, adorned with heart-shaped cutouts in wooden shutters, to be fancifully painted in colors such as poesy pink, egg blue, tangerine orange, pale grass green, and goldenrod yellow.
As you slowly amble along these narrow cobblestone alleyways, you will firmly believe you have stepped back in time into one of your favorite fairy-tale books or videos. To confirm this, these villages actually provided the architectural inspiration for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
Alsace is beautiful at any time of the year, however, my favorite is definitely during the Christmas season. It is during this time that villager’s wooden window boxes change from colorful hanging geranium plants and flowers, to overflowing, snow-laden natural evergreen fir branches loaded with fanciful bows, shiny colored balls (clustered together to resemble a handful of grapes in honor of the locally made wine) along with handmade, painted wooden objects of all sizes and shapes.
It is rare that you will see any huge blow up plastic decorations or hanging strings of colored lights. An authentic and natural Christmas magical experience indeed!
A lovely benefit during the Yuletide season in the Alsace region is the ability to combine numerous wine tastings and vineyard visits while experiencing the cultural traditions of local French Christmas markets and events. For your Christmas tipples, vineyards in the Alsace region produce a dry style Riesling, Pinot Blanc, and a slightly sweet Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer.
This region uses the same production methods as Champagne in making Crément d’Alsace. As production of Champagne is only allowed in the Champagne region of France, Crément d’Alsace is a shockingly good bubbly wine and is rapidly growing in popularity.
A common offering in all the Christmas markets throughout Europe is the delicious hot mulled wine, and villages in the Alsace are no different. Each country and village will have their own take on ingredients so it is wise to try them whenever you have a chance.
For a few extra francs or euros you are able to keep these artful commemorative ceramic mugs which makes for a special Christmas memory when you are back home or at work drinking your tea or coffee.
Colmar and Equisheim are two of my very favorite places to visit. A large Alsatian city Christmas market with five-hundred years old market traditions is Colmar.
This city with old world ambiance in the old town pedestrian only center comprising of numerous architectural treasures is full of imposing buildings dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century. A historic setting is made magical with lighting and illuminations at night throughout the city. Weaving through a portion of the city is a canal in an area known as `Little Venice’.
Colmar offers six Christmas markets throughout the city each in a separate mini-village with its own collection of passionate craftsmen.
A wonderful place in history to visit, however be aware this city is packed with locals and visitors on the weekends and can be very challenging to walk around and actually get to one of the huts to admire and buy their wares. If possible, try to go early in the morning (check opening times) on a weekday.
Eguisheim is a petite village that has an outstanding reputation and is considered one of the most authentic villages in the Alsace wine region with its unique experiences and age old traditions. It has always been my go-to village to wander during the Christmas season and summer as well.
I love its tiny village Christmas market stands featuring little wooden stalls, called chalets. These proud local people sell their one-of-a-kind handcrafted treasures and homemade fresh pastries, cheese, and dried meat. I always find special unique gifts from this area that fit easily and safely into my luggage bag.
What has truly captured my heart and soul is the level of creative effort and detail everyone takes in this village to ensure that their home or store is cheerfully and beautifully decorated.
One of my true Christmas joys is to slowly wander throughout the narrow cobblestone streets admiring and photographing the unique hanging metal signs of businesses, and thoughtfully festive decorated doors and window boxes of fir tree garlands and Christmas ornaments on these colorful storybook timber-framed buildings.
Visiting any city or village Christmas market in the Alsace region of France is truly magical.
There are many unexpected possibilities to be delightfully surprised: admiring richly decorated window boxes filled with pine branches on colorful half-timbered houses; slowly wandering down a narrow cobblestone alleyway to suddenly discover a hidden courtyard set up with a nativity scene or several small wooden chalets/stalls for a local Christmas market; the wonderful mingled fragrance of cinnamon, gingerbread, and mulled wine combined with a festive traditional Christmas atmosphere all merge to offer an unforgettable magical experience.
Christmas markets are becoming increasingly popular with both locals and tourists, therefore whenever possible go on a weekday and check opening times and get there an hour earlier while Christmas stalls are being set up.
This gives you an opportunity to walk around and take photos of the storybook buildings and decorations without a mass of people blocking your shot. This is also a quiet opportunity to try some coffee and croissants at one of the local bakeries.
Do your on-line research before you visit this region. There are so many charming villages offering Christmas markets and events. While several of the larger villages and cities keep their Christmas markets open every day for a month, many of the smaller villages (the ones you definitely want to visit for an authentic and less hectic experience) only set up Christmas markets on certain weekends or for a very limited timeframe.
If you see something you like, buy it now! Do not think you may see it at another Christmas market in another village, many of the hand crafted items are unique to the village you are visiting. I have learned this lesson the hard way and have lost many an opportunity to purchase something unique.
Now is the time to Dream. Travel. Discover.
Diane Meader Leibinger is a freelance travel writer and photographer located in Asheville, NC and Basel, Switzerland. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org