It’s 6pm. It’s been dark for two hours and the temperature is zero degrees.
So grab some friends and stand outside drinking warm, sweetened red wine. It’s either madness or the Christmas Markets – or both – but it’s a great way to spend the nights before Christmas.
The ‘Marché de Noel’ in most towns are cluster ed around the city square. This is true across Europe. Each market stall is usually an individual rustic hut splendidly decorated with cotton wool snow, holly and brightly coloured lights, filled to the brim with Christmas decorations, presents and treats.
What brings many people out is the Vin Chaud (mulled wine) – a spicy red wine kept warm in large urns – although other warm drinks like hot chocolate & coffee, and ‘warming’ drinks like local wines and beer are also plentiful. It’s not good to drink on a empty stomach, so fill up with the bratwurst hot dogs, pastries, doughnuts and roast chestnuts while shuffling along with the milling crowds to look at the stalls. Each are a blaze of colour, selling Christmas decorations like twirling tinsel stars, wicker wreaths, Santas, cherubs and heart shaped gingerbread. A wealth of Christmas presents are on offer from classic painted nutcrackers ranging from tiny to huge, china dolls, flying witches on birch broomsticks to real wooden toys like Grandpa used to have.
Whether it’s a peculiarity of the Christmas markets or just being in a different culture, these stalls are unlike any I’ve experienced at home, in that none of them sell junk. It was all quality made (and quality priced) although getting them home may restore the junk status since delicate glass baubles and gingerbread houses are not normally compatible with suitcases and baggage handlers.
Surrounding the markets, the atmosphere is enhanced by floodlit Christmas shop windows and Santas adorning and climbing public buildings. In many towns the main square temporarily sprouts an ice skating rink where unnervingly talented children zoom around and between the skating crowd of teenagers and couples. If this brings back memories of misspent Friday nights in your youth, hire some skates and join in.
The weather is not brisk, it’s not invigorating, it’s not revitalising. It’s freezing. But it’s surprising how venturing out on a chilly, frosty night is quite attractive with the right clothes on. A long coat and gloves with a hat, scarf and thick socks makes all the difference. And while snow over Christmas is not guaranteed, there’s a pretty good chance of being surrounded by flurries and perhaps a minor inundation. Walking the streets in snow can be hard work so non-slip shoes with a good tread are invaluable.
There are other major benefits to visiting the Christmas markets in France. Firstly, it’s low season, so airfares are low, tour prices are low, and generally hotel prices are low. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), it’s the best excuse to avoid the traditional Family Christmas encounter. “Sorry, we can’t make Christmas dinner this year, we’ll be in Paris and Burgundy browsing the Christmas markets”. Imagine being able to quell the Christmas mayhem next year with throwaway comments like “This time last year we were in Champagne”.
Visiting the Markets a wonderful way to spend the Christmas period, and don’t forget to spend Christmas Day somewhere special. We had a memorable three hour lunch at Le Petit Zinc, in the Paris St Germain district.
An added bonus if you’re from the Southern Hemisphere – after a wonderful, memorable Christmas you get to escape the cold by returning to a glorious summer, sitting outside with a glass of chilled wine showing off photos.
Please enjoy this article, and I hope it transports you to France at Christmas (a plane can also do that).