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The Christmas Markets: a success story dating back to 1570

With its famous Christmas Tree, illuminations, pretty wooden chalets, bredele cakes and hot wine, there’s always magic in the air at Strasbourg’s Christmas Markets. The markets return to the city each and every year, bringing unbridled joy to visitors. And, since 2009, people around the world – in Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing and Taipei – have had a chance to encounter the famous little wooden chalets. But what’s the secret to the markets’ success? How have they stood the test of time?

The Christmas Markets have been adding a touch of magic to the festive season for four centuries. The first markets were held in 1570, making them one of the oldest in Europe and the very first in France. Historian Jean-François Kovar gives us an insight into the history and the unique success story behind Strasbourg’s Christmas Markets.

What makes Strasbourg’s Christmas Markets so unique?

The markets are about reconnecting the festive period with spiritual beliefs and culture. Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in Alsatian culture, especially in the countryside. In November, families come together to make bredele cakes. Some families also make their own Advent wreath. People put up Christmas trees, make a nativity scene, bake spiced bread and prepare hot wine. These traditions are part and parcel of local life right up until Christmas Eve.

Why did the first Christmas market take place in 1570?

The first Christmas market actually dates back to the late 12th century – well before 1570. Records show that Strasbourg held a Klausenmärik (Saint Nicolas market) on 6 December each year. The famous Christkindelsmärik (Christmas market), as it’s known today, came into being when Alsace switched to Protestantism. Johannes Flinner, the preacher at the Cathedral, abolished the Klausenmärik because he wanted to erase all references to Catholicism.

Why here in Strasbourg and not elsewhere in France?

At the time, Strasbourg was part of the German Rhineland, where there were long-standing Christmas traditions – much more so than in France. When Strasbourg became a French city, it retained these traditions as part of its heritage. Alsace stands at the crossroads of two cultures. That’s what makes it so unique. The markets have survived to this day, despite opposition from travelling traders in the 19th and early 20th century, who saw it as a form of unfair competition.

What did the markets look like back then?

The markets were held in the three days prior to Christmas Eve, at Place de la Cathédrale. They were a place where local people could buy provisions to prepare for Christmas, from candle-makers, traders selling spiced bread and other treats, herbalists, saddlers, second-hand clothes dealers, haberdashers and, of course, Christmas tree sellers.

How have the markets changed over time?

As the years passed, the Christkindelsmärik opened progressively earlier. In the early 19th century, the markets lasted six days. By the second half of the 19th century, they were open for 36 days. The markets also moved around as the city expanded. They started life around the Cathedral, at Place du Château and along Rue Mercière. In 1830, new stalls opened on Place d’Armes and Place Kléber (following construction of the Aubette in 1765-1770). And in 1848, the markets expanded once again into the Marais-Vert quarter (after the train station was built in 1846, on what is now Place des Halles). New stalls emerged in the second half of the 19th century, first on Rue des Grandes-Arcades then later on the steps at Place de la Grande Boucherie. The markets didn’t appear on Place Broglie until after 1870.

When did Strasbourg officially become the “Capital of Christmas”?

That happened in 1992, when Jean-Jacques Gsell – deputy to the Mayor of Strasbourg Catherine Trautmann – came up with the idea of opening up market stalls of various squares across the city.