Roots of the Christmas tree

FOR 341 days of the year, the Place Broglie, in the heart of Strasbourg, looks little different from any other Continental city. But at Christmas time, it undergoes an enchanting transformation. The gray square turns green with hundreds of Christmas trees and with sprigs of mistletoe and holly. Even the lampposts are garlanded with greenery.

From 9 a.m. on Dec. 1 until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Strasbourg reminds the world that it owes it one special vote of thanks: the tradition of the Christmas tree.

The idea of chopping down a fir tree and trimming it with ornaments and lights, now as much a part of the festive tradition as the Christmas turkey, began here in the l6th century. In keeping with tradition, the Place Broglie becomes a Christmas tree market for the 24 days of December until Christmas Eve.

Lined up are Christmas trees at all prices, from 30 francs to around 250 francs ($4.50 to $38), and in all sizes from 3 feet to well over 10. To make it easy for the shopper without a car, the trees are swathed in thick, widely spaced netting so they can be picked up and hand-carried home. Worried about setting the tree up? They all come with wooden stands.

Better still: everything you could possibly want to decorate the tree with is already assembled in the dozens of brightly lit stalls that line the square.

Many of the ornaments - such as baubles, steeples, and miniature snowmen - could be found anywhere, but not on such a scale. But there are also more beautiful ornaments that carry a distinct European flavor like angels and multi-sided stars in crisp, golden straw, and circular wreaths of wheat, and miniature golden trumpets with cascades of gold-wrapped parcels dangling beneath them.

Many shoppers keep their hands warm by clasping their hands around glasses of piping hot tea, or toasted cheese and ham sandwiches.

The sound of a Christmas carol evoking peace on earth, goodwill toward men floats through the air. In this historic city of French-German reconciliation, once a frequent battleground for two major European powers, the music seems to strike just the right chord.

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