Old World Holiday: It's All Marketing

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 28, 2004

During nearly 20 years of marriage, our Christmas decor rollout has grown -- from a single hatbox of ornaments and lights to seven substantial cartons, filled with yuletide stuff that my wife has accumulated on a trail from Vienna through Saks Fifth Avenue to the Texas Hill country.

And every year around the feast of St. Nick (Dec. 6), it is my job to haul these cartons down from a dusty perch in the garage so that she can pick through their contents: ornaments made from glass, fabric, wood and old buttons; hand-sewn stockings; the snowman collection; the "Nutcracker" wooden soldier; wooden and tin Santas; reindeer candle holders; pine-cone art; those German candle-powered carousels that always seem to catch on fire; one angel made from battery casings; a nativity scene built from beach stones in Provence; years' worth of our son's school holiday projects, and more.

Given my wife's soft spot for Christmas objets, I suppose it was our destiny to end up last December on a plane to Strasbourg, the capital of France's Alsace and the self-proclaimed "Capital of Christmas." It's an unquantifiable claim, but this much is true: The place celebrates Christmas like few places on Earth.

Nestled west of the Rhine River bordering Germany and east of the Vosges Mountains that separate it from Lorraine, Strasbourg has turned its annual month-long Christmas markets dating from 1570 into an industry, with enough Christmas crafts and gingerbread to bring Martha Stewart fans to the point of overdose and enough vin chaud (hot wine), Alsatian hospitality and cholesterol-laden cooking to keep the rest of us merry and bright.

Christmas in Strasbourg and the rest of Alsace is officially feted from the last Saturday in November through Dec. 31 in a month full of nonstop markets, concerts, torch-lighted forest walks, parades, live Nativity scenes, storytelling, theater and public aperitifs.

With its history as a crossroads that's been kicked between Germany and France, Alsace is neither French nor German. It is the land where Gaul meets the Black Forest, where escargot meet sauerkraut. And at Christmas, you can throw in a heavy dose of Whoville.

A Jolly Welcome

"In Europe there are three places to be at Christmas: London, Munich and Alsace."

The speaker was a young chef in a bistro near our home in the South of France. He was Alsatian, and like the other Alsatians who had come into our lives -- my tennis partner, my son's piano teacher, our neighbors with the super-organized organic garden -- he was making a concerted effort to be helpful, particularly as the subject was Alsace.

"And in Alsace," he continued, "the three places to be at Christmas are Strasbourg, Colmar and Kaysersberg."

It was a week before our trip, which we'd scheduled for the weekend before Christmas. Our Alsatian network had already provided us with a stack of magazines, books, brochures and news clippings. That evening, after our latest Alsatian acquaintance gave us a half-hour talk on Alsatian politics, cuisine, wines, beer and history, he handed me a piece of paper on which he had meticulously written more addresses to serve as our itinerary.

Just after we touched down in the small airport outside Strasbourg, the first thing we noticed wasn't the machine-gun-toting police or bomb-sniffing dogs, but the beer. Right outside the area where we collected our bags, some cheery Alsatians were offering arrivals samples of their new Christmas brew and bredele, local Christmas cookies. It was barely noon, and from the looks of the crowd at the bar a few yards away, the Christmas party was already in full swing.

The old city in Strasbourg's center is circled by tributaries and canals of the tamed Ill River. In the pedestrian center, the preferred modes of rapid transportation are a network of sleek electric trams and three-speed bicycles. Though this is the eighth largest urban area in France, has a major university and is home to the European Parliament, it has kept a small-town feel with its low buildings with gabled roofs and neighborhoods of half-timbered houses.

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