Strasbourg's Christmas market, which dates back to the 16th century, is one of the largest in the country. The city is festooned with illuminations and dotted with hundreds of wooden chalets.
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This year's market is likely to be extra special for the locals. In 2018, a terrorist attack near the market left five people dead and forced a temporary closure. Increased security the following year hit attendance – and sales – badly. And last year saw the seasonal calendar blank because of the pandemic.
France is currently experiencing a fifth wave of infections, with around 50,000 cases a day since the beginning of December. Even so, city officials decided to open the market this year with anti-infection measures in place. Visitors have to wear masks and show certificates to prove they are fully vaccinated or have recent negative test results.
Steve Risch sells a traditional baked cake with honey and spices known as pain d'épices at the market. His company has been an ever-present since his grandfather was the owner.
Lockdown from March to May last year, coupled with the cancellation of the market, forced Risch to temporarily close his factories and shops, which provide an income to about 120 employees. Losses piled up to the tune of 4.5 million euros. The 43-year-old feared he'd have to lay some staff off, or even close the business. But a spirit of mutual cooperation came to the rescue.
In spring 2020, when the pandemic was just beginning, face coverings were hard to come by in France. Risch had supplies for his employees, but since his business was closed, he donated them, plus sanitizer, to nearby hospitals and elderly homes.
His good deed made the national news and online orders started to flood in from across the country as people looked to pay something back to the struggling business. Risch, his company and its employees were able to survive and once more draw crowds at this year's Christmas market.
"People who we had helped during the first wave, people we gave masks and sanitizer to, came and bought our products or ordered online," says Risch. "It really brought our company back to life. It was an extraordinary opportunity to finally have a chance to sell our products. I think that shows the magic of Christmas. We are very lucky and we have a lot of gratitude to the people who helped us when we really needed it."
Risch will continue selling pain d'épices in his firm's permanent shops after the Christmas market ends. He says he wants to protect his employees and this traditional food culture.
Coming together for Christmas
Anne-Marie Rabet, 77, had also been waiting for the market to return. She joined a choir organized by the city for its opening.
Rabet had a long career as an elementary school teacher and taught singing to her pupils. Her husband died about 20 years ago, and she has been living alone ever since. She spent most of her time at home during the lockdown periods last year. Covid restrictions even prevented her from meeting her daughters and other relatives nearby.
When the situation improved, Rabet's 12-year-old granddaughter Manoli Lacour invited her to join the choir.
After a month of practice, the choir performed "Silent Night" and other favorites at the market to huge applause.
Rabet says she was grateful for the opportunity to rejoin the community. "I like singing," she says. "It's something I was able to do with my granddaughter at the opening of the Christmas market. What an experience!"
After a bleak festive season last year, Strasbourg's chalets are back, the mulled wine is flowing, and it feels like Christmas again.