Home of Christmas tree takes a bough. Strasbourg celebrates enchanting evergreen, Yuletide tradition

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

From 9 a.m. on Dec. 1 until 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Strasbourg reminds the world that it is owed 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 16th century.

In keeping with that tradition, the Place Broglie becomes the Christmas-tree market each year for 24 days of December. Christmas trees are lined up 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 feet.

To make it easy for the shopper without a car, the trees are swathed in thick, widely spaced netting so that 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. There are dozens and dozens of little boxes of miniature ornaments such as bright red apples for 30 cents and silver bells for $1. Shoppers can pick up straw baskets and make their selections from the numerous containers, like children at a well-stocked candy store.

But there are also more beautiful ornaments that carry a distinct European flavor, such as angels; multi-sided stars in golden straw; wreaths of wheat; and miniature golden trumpets with cascades of gold-wrapped parcels dangling beneath them.

Not even an icy, impenetrable fog, which grounded flights to Rome, Milan, Paris, and London on this day, could deter people from coming to select their Christmas trees. Many kept their hands warm by clasping them around glasses of piping hot tea, or toasted cheese and ham sandwiches. For those who fancied American corn, there was ``ma"is grill'e `a l'Americaine.''

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

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