This year, more than ever it seems, we can use a boost of holiday cheer. One of the best places to go and stoke that merry glow is a holiday market. In France they’re called les marchés de Noël. The European tradition of Christmas markets started in Alsace in the late Middle Ages (roughly 1570) and continues to illuminate large cities and small villages. Here are a few of the best Christmas markets in France.
In Paris, at Village de Noël des Champs-Élysées, about 150 market stalls line the concourse between the Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées and Place de la Concorde. Carousels, a huge ice skating rink, pop-up eateries serving oysters and champagne, and nightly appearances of Père Noël are big draws, as Debra Dout has written about previously in this blog.
In Provence, one of the prettiest Christmas markets takes place in Avignon. At Place de l’Horloge, the carousel is decked out like a jewel box. There are roughly 60 stalls, an elaborate nativity scene, and countless street entertainers. Among the regional specialties are the traditional 13 desserts of the Provençal-style Christmas meal.
In Marseille, the Foire aux Santons is a celebration of santons (little saints), which are hand-painted figurines made of wood or clay. They were originally created to represent the Nativity. Families throughout Provence often expand their collections with a couple new ones at Christmas time. Over the years, the array of figurines has expanded to include traditional tradespeople and characters such as bakers and boules players. Master santonniers come to the Foire aux Santons to display and sell their handiwork.
In Strasbourg, tourists come from all over the world to experience the oldest and what many consider the best European Christmas market, or Christkindelsmärik. There are about 300 stands, a huge Christmas tree, and Alsatian food specialties. The main action takes place in Place de la Cathédrale in the medieval old town neighborhood, but the market spills over to other locations throughout the city.
Other Christmas markets in France that stand out include those in Aix-en-Provence, Colmar, Rouen, Amiens, Lille, and Reims. Holiday markets worldwide have become increasingly popular as a tourist attraction, as Jon Marcus describes in this Boston Globe article. And yet in France, as with most other markets, they’re primarily geared to locals who cherish the festive tradition.
Sparkling lights and wooden chalet-style stalls lend a fairytale atmosphere to the setting. The aromas from vin chaud (hot mulled wine), chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) and pain d’épice (similar to gingerbread) lighten the mood even more. Plus it’s a chance to buy ornaments, crafts, and regional specialties. Gooey tartiflette (made with cheese, potatoes, bacon. and onions—a dish traced to the Haute-Savoie region), Corsican sausages, Bavarian pretzels, foie gras, and smoked salmon are usually among the tantalizing offerings.
Les marches de Noël are family-oriented fun. Revelers of all ages stroll them. Although there’s plenty to buy, the point of going is usually not expressly about shopping for gifts. Instead, it’s more about the pleasure of enjoying the company of family and friends, and maybe stocking up on some seasonal delicacies to create a special holiday meal.
Christmas markets in France open in late November and continue until a few days after the new year. If you go, dress warmly, bring cash, tote a basket for your purchases, and prepare to be dazzled.