“VISIT the capital of Christmas!” Strasbourg’s tourism website beckoned. That proclamation surprised me, as the city claiming to be at the centre of a holiday celebrated all over Europe, from small hamlets to metropolises, was a small one with fewer than 280,000 residents.
The French city’s claim to fame, the website said, was that it has one of the oldest Christmas markets on the continent; the first was held in 1570. Markets are often set up in the month leading up to Dec 25, and visitors hit the streets to fill up on all varieties of snacks, souvenirs and more hot mulled wine than one thought one could drink.
I was spending my first Christmas in Europe with my girlfriend and was keen to discover how it was celebrated there.
The Christmas spirit has been captured in films like Love Actually and It’s A Wonderful Life; books like A Christmas Carol; and songs like White Christmas.
But I had never directly experienced the popular imagery of the season. I had never seen snow, nor had I ever sipped eggnog next to a cosy fireplace. And after a lifetime of experiencing the holiday through the window of Western pop culture, it felt surreal that I was going to visit a place where fir trees and mistletoes actually grew.
Strasbourg, I surmised, was as close to the real deal, and would be the perfect way to understand why the holiday has so much significance in the Western world.
We arrived in the eastern French city, which lies on the border with Germany, a week before Christmas. It was snowing, but barely. Little flecks of white so tiny that it felt closer to a drizzle than the snow globe I had hoped for.
As we walked down the cobblestoned streets, we were greeted by thousands of glowing light decorations draped across balconies, window sills and alleyways. A row of neon blue angels trumpeted our arrival as we sauntered down a shopping street.
The historic centre, anchored by the thousand-year-old Strasbourg Cathedral towering high above the mediaeval timber-framed buildings, was packed with tourists. Despite the Christmas market boasting more than 300 stalls dotted around the city, the majority of the crowd was concentrated in a 500m radius.
Each stall had a uniform construction — miniature chalet, decorated with fairy lights that covered every square inch available. They lined up to form a makeshift shopping boulevard. Vendors sold everything from Christmas-themed trinkets, soft toys, foie gras, pottery, cheeses and biscuits to, oddly, Icelandic yoghurt and woollen wear.
Despite the variety of stalls, the impressive light decorations, the romantic old-world charm and the busy crowds, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed at the whole spectacle.
The stalls were fun to explore and the decorations pretty, but I did not feel like I was part of a celebration. Instead, I was just one of the two million tourists who flock to Strasbourg annually.
We landed in Berlin three days before Christmas Day. We had not planned on visiting any festive markets, as Germany’s capital is more associated with basement techno clubs than Christmas.
But the markets delighted us. If the Christmas market in Strasbourg was traditional and quaint, Berlin’s were uber-cool and contemporary.
We first stumbled upon a Christmas market at Alexanderplatz, a large public square and a hub encompassing several neighbourhoods. At one end was a fairground, where the hum of excitement and energy was palpable. Couples shouted in glee upon winning at the claw machine, a passing roller coaster made constant swooshes and clanks, and large groups yammered with post-haunted house adrenaline.
At the other end of the square, we came across another market with an ice-skating rink at its centre. Friends and families skated to Top 40 songs. When the clock struck 10pm, the music softened. A spotlight lit up, illuminating a man dressed as Santa Claus. He climbed up onto a small platform and into a zipline powered sleigh, waving to the cheering crowd as he was whisked across the fairground.
Near midnight, we spotted a pop-up beerhouse-cum-club at the corner of the market. The room was hot with a heady atmosphere of alcohol-induced dancing. It played only German electronic dance music.
I didn’t have a clue what the songs were about, but they were irresistibly catchy. One song in particular had a strange chorus, “Johnny Johnny Depp, Depp, Johnny Depp”. I found out only the day after that it was not about the Hollywood actor, but rather a popular song called “Johnny Däpp” composed by Austrian DJ Lorenz Buffel.
As the music blasted and the bass thumped, I slipped into a reverie — I had come looking for Christmas with all the trimmings and had ended up instead in a beerhouse chanting“Johnny Däpp” with the locals.
The irony of the situation was not lost on me. But as we happily got swept up in the general bonhomie, I realised that this was the experience I was trying so hard to find.
It looked nothing like what I had imagined, but it celebrated the essence of all the Christmas movies and books I loved: People coming together to celebrate a joyful event.
Because, as Charles Dickens wrote in his Christmas story: “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”
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