Marché de Noël Avenue des Champs-Elysées
Spending the holidays away from home is a little sad, but European Christmas more than makes up for it. American Christmas, while wonderful in its own excessive and overwhelming way, starts to feel almost garish after months of jewelry and electronics commercials and pop remixes of holiday songs blasting in packed department stores flashing red and green lights. In comparison European Christmas is much classier, and much more adult-friendly. American Christmas makes everyone feel like a child again, but European Christmas is focused on a more generic demographic. Maybe it's because the holiday season is geared somewhat less towards sales and more towards celebration - or maybe the advertising is just more subtle. In any case, the tradition of Christmas markets is one thing I wish was more popular back home. For the entire month of December, and maybe even earlier, the famous Champs-Elysées is transformed into a sort of holiday bazaar. Stalls selling all kinds of different foods and candies and crafts are sandwiched in next to each other. Vin chaud (hot wine) fills the air with warm cinnamon, and chestnuts really are roasted on open fires. Every once in a while there will be a break in the stalls for an ice skating rink, a children's holiday ride, a merry-go-round, or a Santa Claus character. While I did describe American Christmas as more garish, the Santa attraction at the Champs-Elysées Christmas market is entirely over the top. About seven meters above the ground, a sleigh glides through the sky on very expertly hidden metal wires. Santa (yes, a real actor) sits in the sleigh, shouting greetings down to the children and their families. As the sleigh retreats back behind some trees, it even shoots sparks off the back. This might sound just like American Christmas displays, but I found the entire thing to be somehow more genuine. There were only food and craft vendors, mostly from local restaurants or producers, and nobody trying to get you to sign petitions or take flyers or donate to some charity you know nothing about. There are no billboards or signs or any pressure to buy things, especially useless holiday-themed items. For the most part, the things being sold are actually useful as Christmas gifts or for your own personal use. At the end of the street there is a huge glowing ferris wheel, and as you glide from top to bottom you can look down the entire length of the Christmas market and see the Arc de Triomphe on one side of you, the Eiffel tower off in the distance. We walked from the Louvre through the Tuileries, which are oddly beautiful on a cold dark winter night. The fountains are still and the statues feel naked, as though they shouldn't be seen at night. Finally we emerged into the bustle and lights of the main avenue, just as the Eiffel Tower began to glitter. We walked up and down the market several times, sipping hot wine, buying artisanal cheese and sausages, eating tartiflette (a French potato dish) and shwarma, and looking at all the candles and soaps and hats and Russian dolls for sale. Above us the light displays twinkled white, and around us everyone was bundled up and drinking and eating and laughing. It really is a different experience of "holiday spirit" and I absolutely love it.