Christmas market: the fascinating story of a tradition dating back almost 800 years

Christmas market: the fascinating story of a tradition dating back almost 800 years

A tradition from Austria

It was on December 6, 1294 in Vienna, Austria, that the first Christmas market was said to have taken place. On this day, the Church celebrates Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop, known for his charity and his combative faith. An ancient legend says that he resurrected three children. This is why he became the patron saint of schoolchildren. In his honor, a first festival is organized, it is then called the “Saint-Nicolas market”. Very quickly, the meeting becomes unavoidable. The event developed, and each surrounding town as far as Germany began to organize its own market in the 15th century.

In 1434, Dresden organized, under the leadership of Prince Frederick II of Saxony, its very first market. Known as Dresden Striezelmarkt, it is renowned today for being the oldest Christmas market in Germany. Just as famous, that of Nuremberg. If the oldest written trace dates back to 1628, some attest that it has existed since 1530.

From the Saint-Nicolas market to the Child Jesus market

In the 16th century, under the impetus of the reform of Protestantism, the Saint Nicholas markets were canceled. This branch of Christianity intends to fight against the cult of saints and wishes to place Christ at the heart of tradition. There is therefore no question of devoting such a celebration to a saint!

In order not to disadvantage the fairgrounds, a solution has been found: they will be replaced by Christkindlmarkt (child Jesus market) and will take place one week before December 25. The children receive their gifts from the child Jesus and no longer from Saint Nicholas. This is the birth of the modern Christmas market.

During this period, Christmas markets develop in eastern France. Among them, the most famous remains that of Strasbourg, born in 1570. It was for a long time the only Christmas market in France.

A Nazi propaganda tool in the 1930s

In the 1930s, the Nazi party appropriated Christmas customs. Nativity scenes, Advent calendar… Adolf Hitler wanted to control all aspects to make it a nationalist celebration and stimulate the German economy. Regarding Christmas markets, it requires the sale only of national products and it standardizes the decorations of market stalls. In 1936, Berlin welcomed 2 million visitors.

It was the Second World War which marked the end, for a time, of Christmas markets. In 1941, most cities no longer organized them. They only returned in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks to the economic boom of the Trente Glorieuses and the rise in consumerism linked to Christmas. Christmas markets then become mass cultural events.

Revival in the 1990s

While the Christmas markets were running out of steam in the 1980s, no longer attracting foreign tourists, Alsace decided to get more involved in reviving them and promoting its cultural identity. Strasbourg proclaims itself the “capital of Christmas”: it organizes the oldest Christmas market since 1570 in France and uses great means to make it known. A successful bet: in 2022, the Strasbourg Christmas market will see record attendance with around 2.8 million visitors. The whole of Alsace is taking advantage of this dynamic and continuing it. Today, there are more than 300 in this region.

Since the 2000s, each major French city has organized its own Christmas market. Paris is now home to several, notably the one on Avenue des Champs-Élysées which joined the Jardin des Tuileries in 2018. It attracts around 15 million visitors each year.

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