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Strasbourg protects the spirit of Christmas

Luc Citrinot, eTN  Dec 16, 2010

PARIS (eTN) - Eastern France can be proud of its Christmas traditions and attempts to preserve them can sometimes take a curious approach. ETN reported on December 6 about polemics surrounding St. Nicholas festivities as the cities of Nancy and Saint-Nicolas-de-Port decided to register the event as a brand to avoid overcommercialization. Now, this is the turn of Strasbourg with its famous Christkindlmarik (Christmas Market) in Alsacian language.

The market is over four hundred years old - it celebrates in 2010 its 440th edition. It takes place every year from the last week of November until December 31. Its location in front of Strasbourg cathedral turns the market into one the most pictorial in Europe. Some 300 booths offer their products to visitors at 12 different markets. Strasbourg, during this time, is being turned into a truly Christmas capital: 90 Christmas trees decorate Strasbourg main square, including the traditional 28-meter-high Christmas tree on Place Kléber, adn 500 events are organized such as concerts, Christmas carols, and animations.

The market's economic impact for Strasbourg is extremely important - it attracts over two million visitors every year with revenues for the city reaching an estimated € 160 million (US$200 million), while the local administration spends over € 2.5 million to prepare and decorate. The link by high-speed train to and from Paris brings an additional 200,000 visitors to the Alsace capital during the Christmas Market period.

However, visitors and inhabitants have raised their concern more and more about the market's over commercialization and its increasing lack of authenticity. Over the years, new businesses have settled down at the various Christmas markets, with booths selling soft and cheap plastic toys, Italian paninis, sandwiches, or Spanish-style churros. Some sellers did not even hesitate to add water to traditional spiced wine.

Talking to the media in early 2010 following the 2009 edition, Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries highlighted that the city would look back at the event and make it more attractive by being more selective over the booths allowed to participate. Instructions have then been forwarded to turn the Christkindlmarik into a more traditional event. By mid-November, churros and paninis have officially been banned, provocating the anger of some sellers. They estimate to have not known about the ban until late in the season, and were caught unaware, especially as their products were still allowed for 2010 on the list of authorized goods. They also estimate that the ban on churros and paninis will translate into a loss of 20% of their total income.

But the city remains unflexible. Only individual authorizations for the sale of products have a legal value, and the city has issued no authorization for booths selling the infamous churros. For Roland Ries: "The market is neither a fair or a circus-like business. We must preserve the Christkindlmärik's authenticity to strengthen its attractivity for all visitors." Instead of soft toys and churros, the city now promises to reintroduce for 2011 local handicraft and choucroute (sauerkraut). A commission will even control all goods sold on the various Christmas markets from 2011. Activities will also be offered to young people to help them learn and better understanding how to create traditional items or food.

Strasbourg protects the spirit of Christmas
"Joyeux Noël" is not for everyone at Strasbourg Christmas Market (Photo: L.Citrinot)

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