The Christmas holiday period in France is full of culture, heritage and traditions, with a large number of events happening all over the country. One of the main Christmas traditions in France is the French Christmas markets. The majority of cities, towns, and even small villages hold traditional Christmas markets for locals and tourists to visit. The best Christmas markets in France are in the regions of Alsace and Provence.
First, here's a bit about the history of the Christmas markets and how this links to the legends of Saint Nicholas.
The Tradition of Saint Nicholas
French Christmas markets can be traced back to the legend of Saint Nicholas. These traditions are now strongest in eastern and northern Alsace, Lorraine, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Christmas traditions in France often begin on December 6th, when families gather to get ready for the holiday period. Together they retell traditional Christmas stories and sometimes exchange gifts to mark the Feast of Saint Nicholas. This is more common in northern France.
December 6th is also referred to as Saint Nicholas Day, which involves traditional music and parades with colorful floats and celebrations.
On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, children often put their shoes close to the chimney and sing songs to Saint Nicholas before going to sleep. In the morning, children return to look at their shoes and find them filled with special sweet treats and gifts.
Now that you know a bit more about the connection between the Christmas markets and St. Nicholas, here are some popular and beautiful Christmas markets in different parts of France.
Alsace Christmas Markets
Two of the biggest French Christmas markets are in Colmar and Strasbourg which are both located in the Alsace region.
Strasbourg Christmas market
Strasbourg has one of the oldest Christmas markets in France, dating back to before 1570. The main market is held in the main square in Old Town, and is the self-proclaimed ‘Christmas Capital’ or ‘Christkindelsmärik’. The market runs annually from around the 24th November until early January and has over 300 individual stalls selling everything from Christmas trees to food, and much more.
You can marvel at the lights and beautiful chalets, before devouring some tasty bredele cakes and vin chaud (mulled wine). The market and town feel as if there is magic in the air, capturing the spiritual and cultural beliefs of Christmas.
Strasbourg and the Christmas lights, Pixabay CC0
Colmar Christmas Market
Colmar is a beautiful medieval town with renaissance architecture, and its traditional French Christmas market was nominated for the Best Christmas Market in 2018. The market area flows around the traditional heritage of the town, with 5 separate market areas and over 180 stalls. The whole town resembles a fairytale during this period, enhancing the town’s heritage, and showcasing its architectural treasures and the picturesque Little Venice neighborhood. Every day during this period there are events for everyone to enjoy, including concerts and an ice rink.
Colmar Christmas Market - ©Silberfuchs - Pixabay
We send our travelers to a great boutique-hotel that we selected ourselves, in the very heart of Colmar, where you will enjoy exploring the city on foot.
Visit the markets in small Alsatian villages
There are shuttle bus services for people who prefer not to drive in the snow. If you want to get away from the main crowds, you can visit smaller Alsatian towns such as Turckheim (famous for its Advent calendar), Riquewihr (busy but well worth the detour), Hunawihr or Eguisheim - but you will need to drive to get to these towns.
Be careful when planning the dates of your trip: big city Christmas markets run until early January but the more traditional markets in small towns will end on Christmas Day.
To enjoy the very best of the Alsace Christmas markets from just a stone’s throw away, you’ll need to book accommodation about one year in advance.
Alsatian Winstub restaurants - ©CDT Alsace
CHRISTMAS MARKETS IN AVIGNON, PROVENCE
Provence has some very special regional Christmas traditions, which you can learn more about inthis blog post.
At the Christmas markets, artisans and market-sellers offer all kinds of products to celebrate Christmas: santons (tiny painted clay figures) for the nativity scene, lots of traditional gourmet foods and regional specialties, Christmas trees and souvenirs, and many other gems.
You’ll see numerous nativity scenes set up around Avignon at Christmas time.
Traditional handmade nativity figures called santons (Photo: Needpix CC0)
AMIENS CHRISTMAS MARKET, NORTHERN FRANCE
The Amiens Christmas market has been a star attraction of this northern city since 1997, with 130 chalets across over 1.5 miles. You’ll find craftspeople from all over France (and the world) selling handmade gifts, decorations and edible Christmas treats.
There is a colorful music and lights show at the city’s Gothic cathedral every evening while the Christmas market is running
There is also a special circus that runs every year in Amiens, with performers from the Jules Verne National School of Circus and Street Arts. Definitely a must-see!
Amiens, France (Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT CC BY-SA 3.0)
REIMS CHRISTMAS MARKET, CHAMPAGNE
Each Christmas, over 140 market chalets fill the Place du Parvis in front of the Notre Dame cathedral in Reims, just 45 minutes from Paris by high-speed train.
Aside from the Christmas lights, delicious smells and delicacies and beautiful gifts, the highlight of Christmas in Reims is the Big Wheel. And why not bring a glass of Champagne up there with you as you enjoy the city views?
PARIS CHRISTMAS MARKETS
In our post, ’Things to do in Paris in December’, we have included a list of all the different locations where you can find Christmas markets in Paris during a normal year. Visiting a Christmas market has become an enjoyable festive activity for tourists and Parisians alike at Christmas. However, you are less likely to find authentic French-made souvenirs at the markets in Paris.
Louvre museum in Paris at Christmas (Photo: Pxfuel CC0)
The Christmas Market TREND
Nowadays, you’ll find Christmas markets all over France and Europe. For us, the most authentic and beautiful Christmas markets remain in the regions of Alsace, in the east of France, and Provence in the south with its tradition of santons, the 13 desserts, and the nativity scenes.
Merry Christmas to all!