How to Shop the Christmas Markets

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About 600 years ago somebody in Germany had the wonderful idea of holding a local market to sell Christmas cake in the days preceding the holiday. The idea caught on and soon a market opened in Strasbourg. It is a spectacular market with hand-spun treasures from across France; the cobbled streets glitter under holiday lights, spiced wine perfumes the air and people are full of good cheer.

One hundred years later the City of Paris started importing the tradition. Paris lacks Alsatian charm, but there are a couple of markets worth a visit after viewing the Christmas window displays, ice skating at the Hôtel de Ville and stopping for the ultimate tea at the Hotel Le Meurice.

Not to sound like the Grinch, but there are several markets I avoid. The market that is along the boulevard St. Germain specializes in gift items you can find at your local Target, and the market at Montparnasse seems to feature electronic gizmos from Asia. The market at La Defense is the largest but lacks Old World charm.

For a fun, animated market with plenty of traditional and local gifts, nothing beats the Marché de Noël des Champs-Elysées. Decadent blue lights line the avenue, leading the eye from the Arc de Triomphe to the Rond-Point des Champs-Elysées (Métro Franklin D. Roosevelt), where the market begins. A dazzling Ferris wheel grandly crowns the scene at the Place de la Concorde.

The merchants show their wares in decorated white cabins, and artisans are encouraged to participate. Last week I met sisters from Normandy selling personalized charms, an Alsatian with bottles of real spiced wine and a gentleman from the Loire with carved bowls. There is also an ice sculpture display that you can visit, children’s rides and plenty of excellent food to try, along with large vats of fried sausages, fresh oysters and spiced wine.

My favorite Christmas market is on the Place St.-Sulpice in the 6th Arrondissement. The quartier invites charitable organizations that support children’s rights to sell goods for the good of all. For 2009 the theme is a Ukrainian Christmas, and you will find handmade crafts from across the globe.

While you’re at the market, cross the rue St.-Sulpice, where you will find the store Georges Thuillier (number 10) and its competitor, Maison Thuillier (number 8). The shop windows overflow with santons, known as “crèche” in English. These santons are an important part of French tradition, with locals collecting scenes like Americans collect tree ornaments.

If you’re feeling particularly good, they are accepting new toys for underprivileged children at the city hall on the rue Bonaparte, also across the street from the market. That should keep Santa from putting coal in your stocking!

Market hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except December 25.

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