Cozy Christmas in Strasbourg and Keeping it Simple this Year
As I think about keeping family Christmas celebrations small this year, I can’t help but reflect back on our Christmas in Strasbourg last year. My husband Curt and I had decided to join my daughter Justyne and her husband Charlie in a small flat within walking distance of the Christmas markets in Strasbourg, France. The four of us had decided this trip would be our gift to each other and I’m quite sure we enjoyed it more than anything physical we could have given. The time together and the memories created are something I know that we’ll cherish and look back on for years to come. So this post is a trip down memory lane for anyone interested in knowing a little bit about visiting the Christmas markets in Europe, followed by a recipe for Vin Chaud and some thoughts on keeping it simple during the holiday season this year.
For me, the planning part of any trip is almost as fun as the trip itself. Originally I decided to keep it a secret from Curt, as I thought he would be so excited when he found out we were going to the Christmas markets. One of the things I love about him is how he is still such a child at heart. He’s a life long believer in Santa Claus and I just knew this would be something he would really like. Unfortunately, I wasn’t great about at keeping the secret and at some point blurted out something that clued him in. So we got to have fun planning together.
The other thing I loved about this Christmas plan was that it gave myself permission to do no Christmas shopping before leaving for our holiday And with the demands at the office, this was a huge stress relief for me. So instead I looked forwards to strolling through the Christmas markets searching for the perfect artisan made gift for each special person on my list.
Sadly that didn’t work out quite as well as planned. One of the nuances we missed during the planning process was how many of the true artisan markets begin around Thanksgiving, but don’t stay open all the way until Christmas. By the time we arrived these markets had already closed for the season. There still were quite a few artisans sprinkled in most of the other markets, but many of the items being sold had been mass produced.
The Christmas Markets
With this in mind, if you decide to go in the future be sure to do your research ahead of time and find out which markets you want to visit, as well as the days and the hours they will be open before you purchase your tickets. Sadly, this year most were unable to open at all because of the pandemic. As I mentioned, we had planned to spend our Christmas in Strasbourg.
Strasbourg has some of France’s oldest Christmas markets and if you book a place to stay in the heart of the city, you can easily walk to most, if not all of them. We took the train there after a flight into Paris and this works quite well (provided you don’t pack too heavy). Strasbourg is close to the German border, in the Alsace region of the country, so you’ll notice a heavy German influence in the food and architecture as well if you do decide to visit.
The whole city lights up at night and the atmosphere everywhere is quite festive. It was quite lovely to stroll down each outdoor market aisle, listening to the Christmas music, sipping my Vin Chaud (hot mulled wine) and breathing in the smells of the pine mixed with the aromas coming from the little huts of the vendors selling food. There were hot roasted chestnuts, sausages, spaetzle (little delicious German dumplings), raclette (a melted or grilled cheese) and more. You could easily find enough tasty local foods to sample to completely fill a hungry belly, which indeed we did. Some markets had little fires that you could stand around and warm your hands and some had activities for children.
We stocked up at the grocery the day before Christmas so that we could enjoy a simple day - waking up slowly, taking a daytime walk around the quiet village while most were inside celebrating and then cooking a simple holiday meal together in the tiny kitchen in the flat that evening. We had brought a couple of candles to light and had purchased Christmas cookies for dessert at one of the markets the day before. There was little fuss, the day was quiet and slow and most delightful.
The next day we hopped on a train to spend the day at the Christmas markets in Colmar. Though the city and the markets here were smaller than Strasbourg, we actually enjoyed them more as we found a greater percentage of local traders and artisans in these markets. And the city itself is quite beautiful, creating a magical ambiance when illuminated and decorated for Christmas. All the markets could easily be walked through in a single day, but it makes for a nice day activity in and of itself. We spent three days total between both cities and definitely walked miles in the process, but felt it was the right amount of time for our holiday adventure here.
The following day Justyne and Charlie headed south toward Italy, while Curt and I took the train back to Paris to spend the rest of the week exploring the city on foot (we didn’t mind, but at the time there really wasn’t a choice about this anyway since the train companies were on strike). Paris too was a charming place to visit over the holidays, but that is another story, for another day. I’ll conclude this Christmas memory with a pic we woke up early to take one morning, as it seems a good one with which to end this holiday story.
But don’t stop there - read on for my version of Vin Chaud and some thoughts on keeping the holiday simple.
Keep Christmas Simple
If I had to sum up what made this holiday so heartwarming, it was the combination of the following:
Simply spending time with those we love, but limiting it to a small group so that the energy and stress is minimal. We made sure to spend time with other family members in small groups on different days when we returned home and found that the time spent felt like more quality time overall. This year perhaps that may mean not trying to do one big zoom call for everyone not physically together, but perhaps breaking it up into several smaller group calls.
Having a basic schedule for what we wanted to do each day, but not trying to pack too much in. Sometimes Christmas can just feel like too much of everything - too much buying, too much visiting, too many presents, too much food - just too much. How can you minimize all of this? This year is a great year to cut back and start a new tradition of less being more.
Allowing ourselves to simply go with the flow of what felt right at the time. This seems to apply more to travel, but perhaps it can even apply to Christmas Day at home, easing off on expectations and letting the day unfold as it will.
While all four of us love to cook and sometimes center our holiday day simply around doing this together, since we were not in either of our own kitchens, we kept our meal plans simple. Unless you find great pleasure in spending the whole day cooking, try to limit your scope when planning your holiday meal. Make it festive, but don’t feel like you have to have a huge smorgasbord. Your stomach will appreciate this too and you’ll have more energy after the meal compared to a meal where there is so much to choose from and you want to at least try a little of everything.
We came with the intention of enjoying the little things - the sights, the smells, the crisp air, a little candlelight, good conversation over wholesome food and drink. If you keep your expectations minimal and focus on the little things you are bound to truly enjoy your holiday.
I hope that this post encourages you to find your own ways of keeping it simple and have an intention to notice and enjoy the simple things this holiday. Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
And as promised, I’ll leave you with a recipe for one of the simple things I now look forward to this time of year. And note, if you don’t drink wine, you can easily substitute 3 cups more Cider in place of the wine and turn the recipe into a mulled hot cider instead.
Vin Chaud Recipe
1 Bottle of Red Wine
1 1/2 cups Apple Cider
2 Tablespoons Honey
4 sticks of Cinnamon
4 green pods of Cardamon
4 stars of Anise
4 whole Cloves
3 thin slices of fresh Ginger
1/2 tsp Orange zest
Orange, cut into slices
Handful of Cranberries (optional)
You can find countless recipes for Vin Chaud, which didn’t surprise me as every booth I sampled from in the Christmas markets all tasted just a little different. And yes, I’ll confess that I sampled a lot of Vin Chaud on this trip...
When choosing a wine, I’d go for a young, inexpensive, full bodied fruity wine. Though I think I strayed away from tradition by adding cider, I tend to prefer using it and then reducing the added sweetener. Most recipes sweeten with sugar, but I’ve found that this is a really nice hot drink to sweeten with honey.
Mix all ingredients in a large saucepan and bring them to a gentle simmer. At this point I turn off the heat and simply let the spices steep for at least 15 minutes. Then reheat to the desired temperature when you are ready, pour into heat proof glasses and cheers!