This story first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, New Zealand
In a little gothic church in the French town of Sélestat Christmastrees appear to be floating mid-air. They have been suspended from thick-setsable-brown stone archways and behind their green branches 15th century stainedglass windows shine as bright as boiled lollies.
Each is adorned in a different manner, tracing the evolution of Christmas tree decoration. The first is hung with red apples, representing Adam and Eve’s original sin, and holy-communion wafers, symbolising divine redemption. One bears pieces of gingerbread, waffle and biscuits, which came to replace holy-communion wafers. Another is hung with glass balls and the story goes that these were first made one year when there was a shortage of apples.
Traditions around decorating the mighty evergreen are dear to the heart of this town, as legend has it Sélestat was home to the world’s first.
The evidence is displayed in a library 50 metres down the cobble-stoned street. A village accounts book dating back to 1521, with curling yellowed pages filled with close serpentining calligraphy mentions forest rangers being paid four schillings to guard Christmas trees. In case anyone should forget this fact, on the main road into town a giant sign of twinkling lights spells out 1521 1ere mention écrite de l’arbe de Noël Sélestat – 1521 first written mention of the Christmas Tree Sélestat.
The birthplace of l’arbe de Noël is my current home and dominating the courtyard at the high school where I teach is a 20 foot tall tree with branches flicking skyward like the arms of an orchestra conductor. In late November it was hung with blue and silver balls and fairy lights, which twinkle in the wintry darkness when the school day begins and again when it ends.
But as far as Yuletide traditions go in these parts, this is just the tip of the, er, pine needle. The region of Alsace, which borders Germany in the north west of France, is a super-concentrated hub for all things Christmassy. Seventy-six towns and cities have their own programme of festivities, each claiming a different slice of the Christmas mince pie. Gertwiller is the capital of gingerbread and in Pays de Thann you’ll find 1001 varieties of Christmas biscuit. If foie gras is your thing then there are demonstrations of how to prepare it with Noël spices in Phalsbourg, or for an encounter with Christkindel and her angels head to Saverne, the land of Christmas lights. Throughout December hundreds of parades and concerts pipe up and more than 80 different Christmas markets open their stalls for business. The line-up of activities is rather dizzying.
History is partly responsible for this festive fetish. Over the last 1000 years Alsace has been passed like a ball between Germany and France, and residues of Germanic tradition remain, such as the Christmas market. There’s also the fact that Alsace is a bastion of Catholicism. But I hold the weather largely accountable. Alsace is one the coldest regions in France; the first snowflakes fell here in Autumn and since then there has been a procession of icy-cold sludge-grey days of the kind that sap moral and joie de vivre. In the depths of winter, Alsatians are searching for something to warm the cockles of their hearts. Allons-y into the Yuletide frenzy then.
My first sortie is to Colmar where there are not one but five different Christmas markets within centre-ville. It’s a drizzly ebony-black night, but I have the odd impression I’m walking about tiers of an elaborately decorated wedding cake. The cobble stoned city full of ye olde German half-timbered houses, is festooned with ribbons and bibbons, dripping with baubles and bells. The streets are packed with people and filled with the sounds of carols. The smells of candy floss and waffles mingle with the aroma of mulled wine sold by street vendors from massive cast-iron pots. A cupful of the warm crimson spicy-citrus beverage is about the perfect accompaniment to the market experience.
I have my little sister in tow and we peruse the stalls housed in miniature log cabins. Their counters are stacked with beeswax candles, glass decorations, incense cones and wooden toys. One of the markets is dedicated to all things gourmand and sells cheese, sausage, patés, pots of jelly and jam and delicious little spiced bredle biscuits. These are the official Christmas nibble and come in dozens of varieties such as cinnamon stars, orange macaroon, and pistachio-chocolate sablé. Walking by one of their stalls elicits a ‘Vous voulez goûtez?’ Would you like to try? Oh yes please! We chorus. Colmar is kind of like walking onto the set of a Walt Disney movie entitled ‘all your childhood Christmas dreams come true’.
The next day we head to Strasbourg, Alsace’s biggest city, where the sun is giving a miraculous rare smile. The city’s pink cathedral spires jut majestically against electric blue skies, next to which a mini-ice skating rink has been installed. Are we game for a skate? ‘We have to!’ cries my little sis. The rink glitters like crystal. Hard crystal, I think, lacing up my hired boots. A spill could mean a broken limb couldn’t it? I have only been ice-skating once before and that was 15 years ago.
But after a few minutes of shakily holding the rail, my skates find their own lopsided rhythm and I’m bold enough to accept a polystyrene cup of mulled wine passed over the barrier. That’s when things get dangerous. An Indian man with a wide smile is heading towards me with legs splaying like a faun. We have a minor collision but fortunately no blood is spilt, just the mulled wine.
Strasbourg’s Christmas market is the most famous in France, dating back to 1570, but while tourists flock here, locals tell me they don’t go because there’s ‘trop du monde’, too many people. In addition to the original, there are now seven more markets and their cookie cut stalls do have something of a factory feel.
Back in Sélestat, festivities are underway on a cosier small-town scale. The windows of the Patisserie and Chocolatier are to drool for, filled with exquisitely crafted chocolate angels speckled with gold, podgy marzipan snowmen and teams of gingerbread reindeer pulling sleighs of presents. Shops and houses are wreathed up, tinselled up and lit up and the middle school next to my high school has exchanged its school bell for a synthesised version of Jingle Bells. A pint sized Christmas market has opened with a dozen stalls and on December 6th Saint Nicolas makes an appearance.
He wears burgundy and cream brocaded robes with lacy sleeves and carries a golden staff, cutting an altogether nobler figure than fat Father Christmas in his tomato red suit. It’s another miserable wet night but Mamans and Papas are out in force with their petits who clamour about the old man with hands outstretched for sweets. Following close behind is St Nic’s evil counterpart, le Pére Fouettard, a Caliban-like character in a furry brown jerkin with a wild black beard, who is doing his best to scare the living daylights out of the children with roars and threats.
A procession is led to the town square by a tooting brass band where the Mayor of Sélestat addresses the crowd from the steps of a public building. ‘Les enfants, avez-vous été sage?’’ ‘Children have you been good?’ The rotund, smiling mayor deduces that they have been, enters into a scuffle with Pére Fouettard, and has him led away to be locked up in a town basement.
Good deeds are a big part of the December agenda and this year Sélestat is home to a Telethon raising money for rare diseases. One Saturday the town centre is filled with balloons, stages, banners and a very long narrow table bearing a 42 metre-long mille-feuille baked by the town’s pastry chefs. They can barely cut slices of the fancy custard square fast enough to meet the demand of people queuing to buy them.
It’s an achingly cold Sunday that has sprinkled the hills with snow when I go to the village of Orschwiller to hear the famed Chœurs de l’Opera National du Rhin sing. Forty four voices bellow out Handel’s ‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah’, filling the packed church from the floor to the ceiling on which white stars have been projected. It is resolutely uplifting. The woman sitting next to me on the pew says, ‘we need this in winter in Alsace… it’s so grey, there’s no light at all’.
But we have just turned a corner. The 21st of December was the shortest day and longest night of the year, so things can only get brighter from here on in. In Sélestat the fir-tree fraternity marked the date with a public ceremony in honour of, you guessed it, the Christmas tree. In the night of winter you are the chosen king of lights, they say in homage.
That’s Christmas in Alsace, sugar-coated and soppy, but then who is going to say no to another cup of heart-warming mulled wine and spiced bredle biscuit?