As every year, a few weeks before 25 December the Christmas markets are getting into full swing in our town centres and immersing us in an atmosphere of hot chestnuts and santons. These wooden chalets also provide an economic benefit to the towns that host them and to the traders who run them.
The Christmas market tradition originated in Central Europe and has now exported itself and adapted to local customs and specialities. Among the most famous are those in Vienna, Brussels, Berlin and Dresden. But France too values this tradition, especially in the north and east of the country.
Strasbourg is host to France’s biggest and oldest Christmas market, with over two million visitors expected between 24 November and 31 December. For the 442nd time, the 300 chalets and stalls of the “Christkindlmärik” (“Infant Jesus market” in the local Alsace language) cover eleven different sites. The whole market is dominated by a 30-metre-tall fir tree.
The leaders of the capital of Alsace are keen to cultivate the traditions and preserve the authenticity of the Christmas market. An example is respecting the statutory distance between the chalets and stalls of the fairs. For the community, preparations for this major event begin as early as February. The net cost comes to nearly €2.5 million, generating economic value for the whole city worth around €160 million.
Every year a foreign country is invited to Strasbourg. This year it is Georgia that is sharing its age-old traditions, its music, its crafts and its culinary specialities. But Strasbourg has also successfully exported its Christmas market. After Tokyo two years ago, the city of Moscow has decided to introduce Alsatian specialities to Russian citizens this year. Twenty chalets will be set up on Red Square between 24 December and 7 January. With one objective: to promote the Alsatian capital and develop its attractiveness. “With the Tokyo experience, many more Japanese tourists visited during this period and they did not confine themselves to Paris,” points out Robert Hermann, Strasbourg’s deputy mayor.
Alsace is still one of the best-known regions for Christmas markets. Held for just a weekend in small villages or for the entire month of December in large towns, there were nearly 100 such events in 2011; all of which helps to boost the appeal of the region at this time of year. In 20 years, occupation levels in Alsatian hotels in December have grown from 36 to 64%; a higher figure than that recorded in summer. In Lorraine, the Christmas market at Plombières-les-Bains is the second largest in France. The dazzling costumes and magnificent decorations enchant all visitors, young and old alike.
The tradition is being kept alive in the Nord department too. In Amiens and Béthune, the Christmas markets are renowned for the quality of their products and the beauty of their decorations. As it does every year, Lille erects a big wheel on Place Rihour, surrounded by 80 chalets.
In the South of France, especially in Provence, the markets consist above all of stalls of santons, little handmade figures produced by the greatest names in this craft tradition (Fouque, Dider and Escoffier).
Whatever the region, the event represents a significant proportion of their turnover for traders and craftsmen, although it does involve a sizeable investment. The hire of a space can cost from €1,300 to over €6,000 rising to as high as €20,000 for a wooden chalet on the Champs Elysées in Paris. In 2011, the turnover of the Christmas market on the famous avenue alone reached €2.5 million.
A far cry from the typical atmosphere of the markets in the east, everyone can discover the impressive Christmas market in La Défense district on the outskirts of Paris. Between 21 November and 29 December, in an area of 10,000 m2, 300 chalets, a marquee and this year igloos made by creative artists, are set up on the immense main forecourt. From cribs and santons to magical Christmas decorations and gift ideas, thousands of articles are on display in the traditional wooden chalets set out at the foot of the high-rise buildings of the business district.
(Source: MAE/Barbara Leblanc/December 2012)