The famous Strasbourg Christmas Market, which attracts two million visitors a year, is the oldest in France, and for many years it was the only one.
In the 13th century there was a market selling toys to celebrate the feast day of Saint Nicolas, on December 6, which in that part of the country used to be the day when presents were handed out.
In the early 16th century, Strasbourg converted from the Catholic to the new Protestant faith. That led, says Sophie Balland, from the Strasbourg Tourist Office, to the creation of a new Christmas market in 1570:
“The protestant leaders did not want anything to do with Saints and decided to replace the old market with one called after the Christ child, in the Alsace dialect, Christkindelsmärik. It was without doubt the first Christmas market in France.”
Over the centuries it changed locations. It began in the cathedral square, then moved to Place Kléber and later to Place Broglie. Now it is much larger with 300 chalets and spread over different parts of the city.
It has always sold items associated with the local Christmas traditions, many of which began in Alsace and then spread through Europe:
“The first record of Christmas trees is in the town register at Sélestat, dated 1521, 600 years ago”, says Sophie Balland.
Forest wardens were paid four Schillings by the council to guard the forest and fine anyone who cut down fir trees. In 1600, the town hall’s master of ceremonies wrote down the local traditions with one passage thought to give the first description of a decorated Christmas tree in Alsace.
“Glass balls to hang on trees were first produced in Meisenthal in Alsace,” continues Sophie Balland. “Usually red apples were hung from the branches, but one year there were none, so glassmakers replaced them with balls they made themselves.”
The market flourished until the 1970s and 1980s when new supermarkets proved more attractive places to buy presents. In 1992 the Strasbourg council made a positive decision to invest time, money and energy into the market and declared the town The Christmas Capital.
“It worked,” says Sophie Balland, “The idea was to reflect both the commercial and humane strengths of the city. The emphasis is on making it a warm, friendly occasion, lighting up the dark days and steeped in Christmas traditions.”
The market has gone through tough times recently, with a terrorist attack killing five in 2018 and cancellations in 2020 due to Covid. On average it attracts two million visitors a year.