Seekers of the ever-elusive Christmas spirit might find a healthy dose in a Christmas market in Europe. Outdoors, in and around the old town squares, Christmas fairs are held in almost every city on the European continent. And they are excellent purveyors of Christmas spirit with music, ornaments, food and sometimes atmospheric weather.
Three years ago, we started a hunt for the perfect Christmas market. Which city has the best spice, sparkle and camaraderie in the short, grey days of December? We are working on that survey but it may take us a few years to deliver. We found an excellent candidate this year when after a long, interesting train saga through Spain, we landed in Marseille, France.
On the Vieux Port, the old Port in Marseille, there is a compact and beautiful market that is called Marché de Noël (Christmas market). This market is crowned by a tremendous Ferris-wheel that towers over the port with stupendous light. Just off the edge of the market, the boats are docked in the harbor and the Christmas lights along with those of the Ferris-wheel sparkle in the water. To add to the drama of lighting, the tremendous Notre-Dame de la Garde, the iconic basilica of Marseille, commands attention from its perch high on the hill above the city. The lighting of the basilica is theatrical while everything below it on the hill is dark. It is like a beacon with the gold statue of the Virgin Mary standing on its tower. There is the melodramatic light on the hilltop, sparkling light on the water, and the twinkling light of the Christmas market. Blend all of this together, and you have the Marché de Noël in Marseille.
The vendors at the Marseille Marché were exceptionally friendly. In fact, they were brilliant. And I was especially enthralled by the food vendors, food being one of the requisites of a top-notch Christmas market. For what is Christmas without visions of sugarplums and sausages dancing in their heads?
Some sweets came in the guise of 15 varieties of thin, and crunchy cookies somewhat like the Belgi Galettes but improved with thin slivers of almonds, pistachios, dried cranberries, delicate flakes of chocolate, honey-glaze, and other dried confections. They were very easy to love and buy after samples were shared. The seller then held the glassine bag ready and open as an invitation before the array of cookies. Buying 10 was cheaper than 8 and choosing was not hard. The red ribbon on the bag was tied-up and the lovely cookies headed to the hotel with us. There was also the ubiquitous nougat candy of Provence in a variety of flavors and textures. And as in almost every Christmas fair, there were light, fresh golden waffles with toppings of fruit, whipped and ice cream. That aroma was seductive and conducive to the memories of sweet holidays.
The gourmet food stalls were a place to linger. Several stands featured dried smoked sausages from various sources. Some could be purchased in paper cones as slices or narrow twists. The French vendors loved to talk about their food and, at the cheese and truffles stand, I made a friend. He was selling truffles packed in oil, truffle spreads in 6 flavors, truffle vinegar, cheeses threaded with truffles and other lovely delicacies. While we chatted, he fixed samples on crusts of bread and offered each for tasting. This was my favorite booth and it certainly helped me shed some Euros.
To round out the merchandise, there were Christmas ornaments, jewelry, toys, ceramics, and textile crafts. The gift buying was simple and easy especially when the fragrance of lavender wafted from the stands selling soap and lavender products. The soap from Provence is renowned for its olive oil content and its fragrance. It was displayed in the large roughly-shaped yet marvelous bricks or in delicate, smooth bars in a variety of colors and scents. There were lavender hand creams, sachets, and oils that were inspired gift-giving choices.
The winning credential for this market was the personality, humor and friendliness of the vendors. Each was so proud of their merchandise and rightfully so; the merchandise was of a very high caliber. I was so touched when they threw out a few words of Polish to us while processing my Polish credit card. Gracious and friendly, Marseille was a surprising city and Christmas spirit definitely abides there.
There was one very special characteristic of the Marseilles fair that you will not find anywhere else. In a curving line of booths winding away from the main hub of the fair and bordering right against the harbor was the santon fair. The santons are painted terracotta figurines. These figures are crafted especially for display in a crèche as part of an elaborate story of the nativity. The santons are a unique craft of Provence and they are organized by an official Santon-makers’ association.
The santon fair evolved as the enthusiasm increased for the collecting of the Provencal and pastoral figures. The figurines are inspired by folklore and tradition and are unique in their costumes, expressions, accessories and habitat. Santon collectors and people creating their own unique crèches are able to find all kinds of items to add to their collections. Collectors can find some rare pieces like the baker, the garlic seller, the fishwife, the farm-hand carrying a lantern, the fisherman carrying his net over his shoulder, the women carrying a jug holding water with a model of the old well nearby. There are also cribs, mangers, landscaping items and various dwellings modelled on traditional Provencal architecture yet integrated into the depiction of the Nativity story. There were some lovely windmills and stone bridges on the shelves. Santa and helper figures were there as well as were contemporary creatures, like Yoda. The telling of the age-old Christmas story is an important element of a Christmas fair whether through a puppet show, or through the display of nativity scenes.
For more about the traditions of Christmas in Marseille http://www.marseille-tourisme.com/en/discover-marseille/tradition/christmas-time/
The Yellow-Jacket Revolution
Witnessing what may become a historical event during the Christmas season in Marseille was an unexpected sideline of our visit. On Sunday, which would have been one of the fair’s big days, the Marseille police went from stall to stall and by 11, the fair was shuttered, the Ferris-wheel stood motionless, and all traffic in the neighboring streets was cordoned off. There was to be a yellow-vest demonstration. During the course of the afternoon, protesters walked peacefully down the streets with signs, children and pets. They chanted together in a supremely organized, calm manner.
See this Wikipedia page for explanation of the yellow-vest movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_vests_movement
As the afternoon waned, the mood of the protest changed. There were large groups of people, especially older people and families, making a quick exit back down the avenue. Soon after, an explosive barrage was heard. We looked down the street from the balcony of our hotel, to see puffs of smoke from tear gas wafting up from the street. A small crowd of folk were engaging the police up the road. Barriers were being toppled and some of that tear gas smoke wafted up to us.
As the police started to pressure these folks away, they began to run down the street towards the Christmas fair. The course was alight with the fiery blaze emanating from the decorative Christmas trees that stood on the edge of the walks. The exit of the last protesters was marked by sequential line of flaming holiday trees that was left in their wake. This group was not the meat and bones of the yellow-vest movement. It appeared to be break-off group, smaller and younger. By 8 pm, the protesters were all gone, the police were cleaning up the mess, the trees were extinguished, the barriers were removed, the traffic restored, and the next morning, the fair opened with newly festooned trees. Christmas was back on mark.
Christmas Spirit, Christmas Market
So, what was so much more evocative of Christmas spirit in Marseille? Today almost every major European city rolls out an outdoor Christmas festival. Some are large and grand; some cities have several fairs. However, the smaller fairs are so much more convivial. It is easier to mingle with others in the smaller crowds, to share stories and greetings and so share in the celebration of the season. Music, food, people, lights and an iconic Christmas tree add to the ambience.
We have cached a swell of memories from Christmas’ past to conjure the glow, the warmth, the peace, the joy of the season. When adults are tied-up with preparations for holiday meals, guests, shopping, working at a job, and most importantly, making sure the children get their fill of Christmas memories to cherish, they have a hard time capturing that elusive seasonal spirit for themselves. Christmas glow thrives only when the mind is free of the muddle of everyday chores and reminders. So, a walk in the Christmas market can evoke memories of being a child waiting for Christmas, hearing the carols, smelling the cookies, and watching snowflakes softly fall from the sky and spread on the shoulders of the passersby. You might reclaim that gentle tug of emotion from a mood that is Christmas.