When you think of Christmastime in France, maybe you think of Strasbourg, the French Christmas capital in Alsace. Maybe you think of mulled wine and bûches de Noël. Or maybe you have no idea what the holiday season is like here! Christmastime is one of the most culturally important times of the year here in France and Christmas markets are my favorite part of that season. Unfortunately, all throughout France this year, the majority of the beloved Christmas markets have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Imagine my surprise when in mid-November I saw the chalets in my town of Perpignan being set up along the canal! Keep reading to find out what Christmastime in a small French city is like and how it was able to still open its Christmas market.
“I am writing this article as part of the linky for bloggers organized by the blog Expat in France. Feel free to check it out, you will find lots of useful advice about living in France, navigating the French red tape and understanding better French culture.”
The Holiday Season in France
Even though France has a “laïc” (secular) government, it’s history is heavily rooted in Catholicism, so many of it’s modern traditions align with religious holidays. In every city where I’ve lived in France, there have been some kind of Christmas decorations and Christmas market. Cities and towns in the US often decorate for the holidays as well, but they usually try to incorporate decorations for other religious celebrations like Hanukkah as well. I always wonder if people who don’t celebrate Christmas in France feel excluded during this time of year.
This year at the end of October, I saw all kinds of chocolates, advent calendars, and other treats pop up at the grocery store. I thought it was way too early to start selling christmasy things, but then again Thanksgiving is not celebrated in France. Other specialty foods I have seen for this time of year include foie gras, oysters, and other seafood. One thing I have not seen a lot of are candy canes or “sucres d’orge” in French, and the ones I have seen are not peppermint flavored! Let me know in the comments if you’d like me to make a blog post about all the French winter holiday treats I’ve been trying.
Perpignan Christmas Market
In November when the marché de Noël in Perpignan was being set up, I was skeptical if it would actually be able to open. Once the lockdown restrictions in France were lightened, the Mayor got the approval from the prefecture to open the market. In addition to 32 market stands, the city also set up a ferris wheel and another ride for children by the Castillet. An ice rink was also set up by the carousel in Place de la République, but it is yet to open.
The Grand Opening
Once we heard the market was open, my boyfriend and I decided to check it out the evening of its grand opening. We agreed that if it was too crowded, we would go home. Once we were out in the streets, it was apparent everyone else in town and the surrounding villages had the same idea. Despite the crowds it was exciting to be able to go out again after the strict lockdown. The city was also beautifully decorated with glowing lights and sapins de Noël (Christmas trees) in the narrow streets. Once we reached the market, it was clear we weren’t going any further. The amount of people there made us uncomfortable, even if there were police and barriers to control the crowd.
We eventually went back on another day in the afternoon and it was less crowded so we were able to comfortably visit. I was most excited for the mulled wine stand – I have some great memories of my first year living in France visiting Christmas markets and drinking vin chaud with friends. Unfortunately, this mulled wine was more like a direct translation of vin chaud; it literally tasted like just hot wine. Normally this winter beverage is slightly sweet and brewed with spices like cinnamon and cloves, and orange slices. We eventually found a better mulled wine at a waffle stand near the carousel, but I think we need to make it at home next time.
I love shopping at Christmas markets to find traditional French gifts to send home to my family in the US, and to support local artisans. Santons, candles, cookies, and soap make great handcrafted gifts. I was a little disappointed however to see the lack of true artisan stands. I even heard a few locals complain that this year the market is full of “revendeurs,” people who buy products, then resell them. Some of the products being sold too seemed a little tacky to me too. I think better gifts could be found in the local shops and boutiques in town.
The food at the market however, looks delicious! Raclette sandwiches, bubble waffles, pretzels, burgers, donuts, dried sausages, and more can be found at the market. The indulgent offerings are the perfect comfort food for the chilly windy weather in the South of France.
Making Memories in France
Although the Perpignan Christmas market isn’t quite like the ones in Alsace, I’m still thankful it was still open this year. This year I won’t be travelling back home for Christmas due to riskiness of COVID-19 and international travel. It will have been a year now since I haven’t seen my family and I’m not sure when it will be safe to visit them again. Although part of me is sad, part of me is also happy to be spending my first Christmas in France with my boyfriend and our cat. We have already started making our own traditions with raclette nights, mulled wine searches, and wintery bike rides.
Thank you so much for reading and make sure you’re following the blog for more content about life and travel in France!
À la prochaine,
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