At France’s Oldest Christmas Market, Energy Crisis Dims Festive Spirits

STRASBOURG, France — The noon church bell had just chimed on Strasbourg’s vast Christmas market, briefly drowning out the sound of carols from speakers, and Franck Bodein was enveloped in fumes from a giant skillet of frying mushrooms. Steaming pots of mulled wine and pans overflowing with a gooey casserole known as tartiflette lined his stall, just as they have for the two decades he has been working at the market.

One key feature, however, was conspicuously absent this year: the Christmas lights.

“They’re gone,” Mr. Bodein said, pointing a wooden spoon at nearby plane trees whose branches used to be festooned with garlands of lights. “It’s too bad. They brought the fairy tale atmosphere.”

Strasbourg’s Christmas market — the Christkindelsmärik, or “Christ child market” in the local dialect — is France’s oldest and largest. It has grown from a few stalls of herbalists and gingerbread vendors near the cathedral in the 16th century into a citywide extravaganza, offering everything from roasted chestnuts to jewelry. The city has proclaimed itself the “Capital of Christmas.”

The market is a monthlong excuse to socialize and shop amid wooden chalets offering traditional food and drinks. But its main attraction, luring nearly two million visitors each year, has always been the Christmas lights.

But as Europe has embarked on an enormous energy saving effort to get through a winter without Russian gas, the continent’s energy-hungry Christmas markets, a seasonal feature across Europe, have been a prime target and forced difficult debates about just how much seasonal glow cities can afford or should indulge in.

Illuminations have been scaled back, seasonal ice rinks canceled and outdoor heaters banned.

Across France, many cities have struggled to keep the year-end festive spirit while addressing rising energy prices. Fears of blackouts have forced local authorities to look for cuts at the risk of spoiling a Christmas season that is often intended to cheer people up, especially after months of economic crisis marked by strikes and soaring costs of living.

“The question is, how do you balance magic and responsibility?” said Guillaume Libsig, a Strasbourg deputy mayor in charge of city events.

Every December, a dozen squares in the center of Strasbourg, a city of nearly 300,000 residents bordering Germany, are taken over by more than 300 stalls, in a vibrant atmosphere where the pungent smell of sauerkraut meets the vanilla-scented aroma of baking waffles.

And even this year, the market is not without a seasonal gleam.

Some 30 miles of lighting displays are still deployed around Strasbourg, with garlands and chandeliers bathing streets in a pink, blue and golden glow. Installations include glittering gingerbread men with candy canes and twinkling angels hanging over a street leading to the city’s cathedral. From the top of the religious edifice, for at least a few hours at night, Strasbourg shimmers like the sun on the sea.

“Dazzling,” Gabrielle Carl, a local resident, said on a recent evening.

“Well,” she added, “energy-guzzling too.”

Several years ago, Strasbourg’s Christmas market switched to LED lights, which use up to 90 percent less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs. But the lighting budget still adds up to hundreds of thousands of euros, and Mr. Libsig acknowledged that the event represented an energy burden that had long been overlooked.

“We used to push the button, there was light, and nobody was wondering where it came from,” he said.

Then came the Ukraine war.

Faced with soaring gas and electric costs as a result of Russia’s invasion, France launched a sweeping plan of “energy sobriety” to cut energy consumption by 10 percent in two years, including lowering heating in buildings and scaling back lighting. Private companies and public administrations have been required to join the effort.

In Strasbourg that meant targeting the Christkindelsmärik, long considered untouchable.

In the fall, the local authorities announced they would reduce city-run illuminations by one-fifth; turn off lights an hour earlier at night; and wrap up the light show a week earlier. The goal was to reduce energy consumption by 10 percent compared to last year.

Some areas, such as the one where Mr. Bodein was cooking mushrooms, have been deprived of Christmas lights as a result. And people exiting restaurants after a late meal are now plunged into the darkness of some of Strasbourg’s cobbled streets.

But many visiting the market said they were satisfied with the changes, noting that the festive spirit had been maintained overall.

“A few cuts won’t hurt,” said Leonor Lorents. She added that restrictions should only go so far because “it’s important to keep these big events that get people together.”

Still, Ms. Lorents and others said the Christmas market was suffering the consequences of what they considered the government’s failure to secure enough energy supplies to replace Russian gas.

The resentment was especially high among vendors, no longer allowed to use heaters to keep warm in their open-air chalets.

On a recent subfreezing evening, they were bundled up in parkas and mittens, as if going skiing. They stared jealously at the mulled wine sellers basking in the hot fumes emanating from large copper pots.

“It’s a bit radical. Couldn’t we save up elsewhere?” Jacqueline Jacquetton grumbled behind her stall, where she sold soaps and fabrics. She confessed she had kept a small heater hidden under her counter. “I’m not going to put my health at risk,” she said.

Alexis Chaun, who worked at one of Mr. Bodein’s stalls, said the changes had made the market “less joyful.”

Several towns near Strasbourg have gone further in their cuts or proved more innovative in dealing with rising energy costs. Haguenau got rid of its skating rink, an energy-hungry attraction that environmentalist have criticized for years. Colmar and Illkirch-Graffenstaden have installed solar panels to power lighting displays and a Ferris wheel.

Pierre Muller, the head of Eco-Manifestations Alsace, an organization that assesses the environmental footprint of events, praised Strasbourg’s efforts. But he noted that most of the market’s energy consumption came from visitors traveling there. Reducing lighting, he said, “only has a marginal impact.”

“One way,” he added, to really cut the energy burden would be “to reduce the number of visitors.”

This may prove too radical a step for Strasbourg’s cherished, and profitable, market.

Gwenn Bauer, the head Les Vitrines de Strasbourg, an organization representing the city’s retail businesses, said he did not want “a lugubrious Christmas.”

Driven by the energy crisis, his organization has tested solar-powered lamps on a small street. But it has stopped short of scaling back the number of Christmas lights it installed this year, some 12 miles. “It must remain magical,” Mr. Bauer said.

Mr. Libsig, the deputy mayor, seemed more open to considering greater efforts, especially as French cities try to become more climate-friendly in the face of rising temperatures and air pollution.

Referring to the “Christmas of our grandparents,” when a family gathering by the fire was enough to make one happy, he said the market must “regain some authenticity” and no longer be synonymous with “carelessness and the logic of overconsumption.”

“The DNA of Christmas is totally compatible with this notion of responsibility and the end of abundance,” Mr. Libsig said. “In fact, Christmas can be an example of how to initiate changes.”

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