As Christmas everywhere gives way to commercialism and hype, it may come as a surprise that Paris, the land of the luxury brand, is one last holdout. No “Jingle Bells” blaring from store speakers, no fat Santas hawking merchandise, no Disney movie characters dangling in lights. Paris’s Christmastime pleasures are as refined as the city itself, and instead of materialism—Parisians have a dislike of ostentation—its energies are focused around traditional Yuletide pleasures: family, friends, and of course, food.
As the days grow shorter, churches and monuments cast a burnished glow, and every corner of every quartier is transformed with its own special enchantment—from the lively outdoor ice skating rinks at light-festooned Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the Champs-Elysées, and atop the Eiffel Tower to the many charming Christmas markets that line the city’s streets and squares. Like mini villages, the festive markets of Saint-Sulpice and the boulevards Saint Germain, Champs-Elysées, and Montparnasse, to name a few, offer Parisians and tourists alike a cornucopia of handmade gifts and specialties from every region of France: sticky butter cakes, wooden toys, and hand-knit sweaters from Brittany, glacéed fruit and fresh nuts from the Auvergne, cheeses, traditional charcuterie, and wine from every province of the country. Warm up with a hot vin chaud suffused with spices while a small brass band plays the merry songs of Noël.
Not to say that fevered scouring and spending don’t play a part. Retail giants Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, and Bon Marché’s glittering Christmas windows are designed as much to entice as to enchant. This year, Parisians were up in arms about Dior and Vuitton-themed windows geared more toward tourists than tots, and newspaper articles deplored the overt branding of a cherished tradition that dates back a hundred years.
Yet Parisians have no problem waking up first thing Christmas morning to dash to the local outdoor food market. An epicure’s dream come true, these bustling markets furnish all the fresh delicacies that will star in the day’s festivities: wild geese, rabbits, and pheasants; baskets brimming with lobsters, scallops, cockles, and oysters fresh from the coast; carefully wrapped pears and clementines; pyramids of round wooden boxes filled with Saint-Nectaire cheese to be baked and savored with chunks of rustic country bread, and the decadent, cream-filled bûche de Noël cake, made in the shape of a Yule log.
To truly capture the holiday spirit, find a vantage point where the Eiffel Tower is easily visible. At the stroke of the hour, as the last of the daylight fades into dark, see the world’s most celebrated monument blaze to life with a million glittering lights cascading up and down like golden bubbles in a gigantic flute of champagne. Then go to the nearest café and raise a glass to your great good luck—to be fully, exuberantly alive in Paris at Christmastime.