NEW YORK -- The Alsace region of France is renowned for its
medieval capital of Strasbourg, its picturesque villages, its
luscious foie gras and its fruity white wines. Less known, but well
worth tooting a holiday horn for, are its "Christkindelsmariks" or
They are open for business sometimes by the end of November but
more often about Dec. 6 (on the feast of St. Nicholas) and continue
through Christmas Eve. There are dozens of these traditional fairs,
but the most famous are those in Strasbourg and Kayserberg in
Alsace; also recommended is the magical market town of
Montebeliard, a half-hour drive south of Mulhouse in the
neighboring province of Franche-Comte.
For collectors of custom-made Christmas ornaments, there is no
better place to be. On sale in town squares are wooden decorations
in the shape of traditional biscuits, angels blowing trumpets,
miniature rockinghorses and little statues called santons to create
at home Nativity scenes.
Other traditional crafts include embroidery and stone-wares.
There are selections of foie gras and sausages; the latter, unless
tinned, will not clear U.S. customs.
You can almost follow your nose to these outdoor Christmas
emporiums, where smells are a mix of gingerbread and spice cookies,
bredele (small seasonal cakes), fragrant hot wine and freshly cut
Strasbourg claims the oldest of the Alsatian special markets,
first held in 1561, which takes place in Place Broglie in front of
the City Hall and in Place de la Cathedral, in front of the famous
Christmas also shines from the 90-foot tree in Place Kleber,
around the Marche des Petits Gateaux at Place de la Gare and at the
Christmas Beers Fair held at the Strasbourg Chamber of Commerce.
The superstar of Le Noel in Kayserberg, a medieval vineyard town
and the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, is an indoor exhibit of a
dozen Christmas scenes.
Villages such as Turckheim, Eguisheim and Riquewihr -- all along
Alsace's famous Wine Road -- are masterpieces of Yuletide decor,
and Munster, home to the province's most famous cheese, has a very
special bredelamarik (cookie market) of traditional sweets as well
as a live Nativity scene.
To these outdoor emporiums of specialized shopping, add several
picturesque towns, centers of production of traditional Alsatian
crafts that make unbeatable take-home presents.
There are beautiful fabrics and household linens made in
Ribeauville and stoneware and fine painted pottery (particularly
culinary pieces) in Soufflenheim and Betschdorf.
Decorative lighting is a hallmark of eastern France Christmas
markets, and few towns do it better than Montebeliard, a half-hour
drive south of Mulhouse in the province of Franche-Comte.
Throughout the old town, pedestrian ways are roofed over with
thousands of colored lights, fashioned into stars, angels and
Artisans work at traditional Christmas crafts in the main
square, and Santa sits in a decorative sleigh, listening to
children's wish lists.
Let it be said that there is little to praise about the
pre-Christmas weather in eastern France. It is best to wear full
rain gear when you go to market.
However, you are never far from a cafe serving up steaming cups
of hot tea, coffee and chocolate as well as steaming wine for the
Montebeliard takes first prize in places to warm up. For
example, there's the Tea Room Debrie at 12 Rue de la Velotte, owned
by Jean-Pierre Debrie, master chocolatier. During my visit, I saw a
parade of pastries, chocolates and hot chocolate concoctions.
For further information, contact the Eastern France Tourist
Board office in New York at phone-fax (212) 838-6798.
A time and place for warm wishes
In the Montebeliard Christmas market, I stopped to admire the
little wooden votive figures being carved by an old gentlemen, who
looked a bit like a slim Santa.
(The French rarely believe that anyone speaking French can be an
American. In my case, they have a point: I am fairly fluent, my
grammar is atrocious, so I just roll along, quickly.)
He asked me if I was Dutch. I said no. Danish? No? Then who was
I? "I am an American," I said.
He put down his tools, came out from his covered stall into the
pouring rain, took my hand and said, "Your country saved my town in
World War II."
"I know," I said, "my father was killed just over the border
during the Battle of the Bulge, the reason I had always avoided
most of eastern France."
He put his arms around me and said, "Thank you for coming." We
wished each other Merry Christmas.