My clearest memories of high school French class are not of writing verb conjugation after verb conjugation on the black board. Instead, they are of the annual Christmas carol day when we would take a break from memorizing the textbook and listen to French Christmas carols. Of these, the clearest in my memories is << La Légende de Saint Nicolas >> (“The Legend of Saint Nicholas.”) This was not the tale of Jolly Old Saint Nick, mind you, but a morbid story that started innocently enough with three young children in a field. Soon, darkness falls, and they seek shelter in the home of a butcher who, as these things always go, is evil and who chops them up and puts them into a tub to brine. Seven long years later, along comes Saint Nicholas who requests to be served the three pigs that have been brining. Away runs the butcher, and Saint Nicholas raises the children from the brining tub. “I slept well,” says the first; “Me too,” the second”; “I believe I’ve been in paradise,” the third.
At les Marchés de Noël, the Christmas markets held in towns across France, the Christmas carols tend to be more positive and familiar for English-speakers. There is << Mon Beau Sapin >> (“Oh, Christmas Tree,”) and << Douce Nuit, Sainte Nuit >> (“Silent Night.”) There is also the extremely popular << Il Est Né le Divin Enfant >> (“He is Born, the Divine Child,”) which is featured heavily at midnight masses, serving as both the opening and recessional songs. In the States, Christmas markets tend to be of the craft fair variety, perhaps held at a civic center or in a high school gymnasium over a weekend. Les Marchés de Noël, however, are month-long festivals of lights, foods, warm grogs, and, of course, carols.
In Toulouse, le Marché de Noël is held in the Place du Capitole, an open expanse in front of the town hall that forms the heart of the city. Last year, I went nearly every night to the market, where I would buy a hot wine and wander, sometimes standing creepily next to the cheese stand for much too long and admiring the local, farm cheeses wrapped in leaves and topped with berries. Other times, I would head over to the sausage stand for free samples. Other times still I would sit with my wine and watch the light show broadcast onto the back of the city hall and that always ended in well-wishes sent by SMS.
After such an enjoyable Christmas season in Toulouse, today we are headed to Europe’s, and, arguably, the world’s most famous Christmas market, the Christkindlesmarkt in Nuremberg. It is the winter-time sibling to Vienna’s Ostermärkte, which we visited last spring. Though there do not seem to be any spooky German Christmas carols, there is the Christmas devil, Krampus, who will have luckily descended back into the fiery pit before we arrive in Bavaria.