I leave it and yet I come back to it. Strasbourg dazzles me, bothers me, and mesmerises me. This is the city I chose to settle 8 years ago, between a wholehearted love and uncontrolled desire to leave.
Fair enough, it seems like I have this city under my skin.
In Strasbourg, History is written before your astonished eyes. From Argentoratum to Strossburi, visiting Strasbourg is getting a glimpse of centuries of adventures and architectures. And in the heart of the city, is proudly standing, impassive, the Notre Dame de Strasbourg’s Cathedral, which celebrated last year its millennium’s birthday of the beginning of its construction. Yes, darling, my Cathedral is a thousand years old. Victor Hugo described it as a ‘wonder of gigantic and delicate’ (The Rhine, 1839), and that’s exactly the dominant feeling when I stumble upon it. For 8 years now, I can’t get tired of it. And it took almost 500 years to finish its construction, which is the reason why you can notice so many different artistic movements within its architecture. Gothic, Romantic, Romanesque, every little corner is a delight to your eyes, a witness of History.
However, the most famous wonder of Strasbourg is its Christmas Market, or should I say Christmas Markets. This tradition comes from the XVIth Century and since that’s the 446th edition of the Christmas Market in Strasbourg, in 2016, that dates it back to 1570. Bitch, please. Before Strasbourg, Austria and Germany already had this kind of tradition, although it was called the ‘Saint Nicklaus’ Market and were held on December 6th. Later on, it was renamed ‘Christkindlmarkt’ (‘Christkindelsmärik’ in Alsatian – the ‘Infant Jesus Market’) under the Protestant Reform, which was fighting against the cult of Saints and was advising a return to the source of Christianism.
But who is this Saint Nicklaus guy, by the way? In Alsace, and in some other European countries like Germany, Austria or Poland, we celebrate St Nicklaus day on December 6th or on the eve of December 5th. This character is inspired by Nicolas de Myre, an IIIth-IVth century’s bishop. Apparently, he made quite a few divine appearances after his death, which earned him to be canonised. He’s known as the patron of children, scholars, sailors and single men (as to single women, you have to check with St Catherine.) Traditionally, in the Alsatian popular culture, St Nicklaus gives some candies, gingerbread, and oranges to the good kids.
The legend tells us that in the Lorraine region, three lost children asked the butcher Peter Lenoir for hospitality. The guy welcomed the kids in his home, and as soon as he closed the door, he killed the kids, cut them into pieces and threw them into the salt bin. What a nice reliable guy, this Peter don’t you agree? Saint Nicklaus who was conveniently passing by with his donkey (he always travel with a donkey), knocked as well at the butcher’s door who didn’t dare to refuse hospitality to a bishop. When Saint Nicklaus asked for some salt pork, the butcher figured out that he was trapped and finally confessed about his mischief. Saint Nicklaus spread his three fingers on the top of the salt bin and resurrected the three children. Pouf. He dragged out with him the butcher as a punishment, who became Father Whipper (‘Père Fouettard’ in French, and ‘Hans Trapp’ in Alsace.) Father Whipper is dressed in black and threatening misbehaving kids with his whip. In Alsace and Lorraine, there are some other legends for this ‘Hans Trapp’ guy, apparently inspired by a real man who was found of human flesh. Yummy. The Saint Nicklaus legend is at the origin of the Santa Claus one, considering that the Dutch exported this celebration in New York around the XVIIth century, where ‘Sinterclaes’ became ‘Santa Claus’ (as you see there’s more than Coca-Cola in this whole Santa Claus story!) And it’s easy to notice that the look is quite the same: an old guy with a white beard, a red and white suit, a hat and giving gifts to children.
So, in Alsace, for St Nicklaus’ day, dinner is turning into breakfast, where you eat ‘Mannala’ (in the Haut-Rhin department) or ‘Mannele’ (in the Bas-Rhin department.) These are some little brioches in shape of little men that you eat with hot chocolate or coffee, some jam, and tangerines. These brioches represent Saint Nicklaus himself or the three kids he saved from the butcher. Yu can also eat ‘Schnackle’ (in the Haut-Rhin department) or ‘Schneckle’ (in the Bas-Rhin department), some snails shaped brioches. The animal-shaped brioches come from an older tradition apparently and were supposed to scare the winter evil spirits.
In Strasbourg, like everywhere else in Alsace, Christmas Markets had been regaining some touristic interest over the years and the city of Strasbourg got big by proclaiming itself the ‘Christmas Capital’ in the 1990’s. The Christmas Market which was originally held on Place Broglie, extended and gave birth to multiples other little markets all over the city like at the Cathedral’s place, Place d’Austerlitz, in the heart of La Petite France neighbourhood and even in front of the train station.
So, what can you find at the Christmas Markets? Well, many regional specialties, which means a lot of Alsatian food, but also heaps of different kinds of Glühwein (mulled wine with spices), sometimes even with a good shot of Rhum (it’s even called ‘the medicine’ by the waiter, and there’s nothing better when you’re freezing outside.) You can also buy many local crafts, and also a bit less local (Made in China doesn’t really look Alsatian, doesn’t it?) But the real delight is to take a stroll amongst the little stalls of La Petite France, along the tiny alleys skilfully decorated of the Carré d’Or, to stop Place Broglie and warm your hands with a glass of Glühwein in good company and taste some free bites of ‘bredele’, those little Christmas shortbreads that smells the sweet smell of cinnamon. When it’s not over crowded with tourists, the atmosphere is really enchanting in the streets of Strasbourg. Especially when you gaze at the illuminated Cathedral, and its impressive tower engulfed into the wintery mist.
On the Place Kléber, every year, there’s this huge Christmas Tree (27 meters and 8 tonnes this year), imported from the forests of the Vosges mountains. Decorated more or less skilfully, with questionable taste. Every year, the inhabitants of Strasbourg take the debate about its decoration, its height. You can become quite critical, being used to see magnificent trees every year. By the way, the first Christmas Trees in France came from Alsace –even though Alsace was part of the German Empire back then. That’s in the XIXth Century that Alsace exported its tradition in the rest of France when the Alsatians exiled during the French/German war of 1870. As you ay guess already, the Christmas spirit is quite a serious thing here in Alsace.
Last year, in 2015, after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, the Christmas Market’s 445th edition was due to be cancelled. It took place anyway but subsequently reduced to the old city centre perimeter. Gone the ice skating park on Place de l’Etoile, gone the ‘bredele’ on Place d’Austerlitz, gone the Glühwein that you’re happy to taste right when you come out of the train station. The perimeter is now surrounded by security checkpoints, gendarmes, policemen, riot police, military soldiers are roaming around, rifles on their shoulders, Tasers on their hips. They’re warming up their trucks engines, polluting a little more the air of the city. The visits inside the Cathedral are limited. The Christmas romance and vibe are still here, but I have to confess that a little bit of magic is getting lost into this profusion of uniforms.
It’s mostly thanks to the eyes of some Couchsurfers that I’m hosting (and Flo, my New Zealand travelmate who paid me a visit!) that I’m rediscovering my city and the treasures of the Alsatian’s culture. Eyes are getting wide open, smiles are drawing gazing at all these lights. In New Zealand, when I spent Christmas on a little island, I really missed this bloody Fairy Tale atmosphere. In the end, we’re a bit fussy, complaining about the sea of tourists and the security checkpoints which prevent us from going to work, to the supermarket or at our mate’s house, but, deep inside, we seriously love our city during Christmas time.
LET’S GO THERE! :
In Alsace, Christmas Markets are held every year from the last Saturday of November to December 24th included.
Le musée Alsacien (Alsatian Museum) , 23-25, quai Saint-Nicolas, Strasbourg
Le musée historique de la ville de Strasbourg (Historical Museum of the city of Strasbourg), 2, rue du Vieux Marché aux Poissons, Strasbourg
Le musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame (Museum of medieval and renaissance arts) 3, Place du Château, Strasbourg
The Couchsurfing community in Strasbourg