"It was an anything goes society," said our guide, Rachid. …
I confess. Until this year, I’d never been to any bona fide Christmas markets in Canada or anywhere. I’d been blithely walking around, not knowing my glühwein from my glögg, or my stollen from my kuchen. Yes, I am a Christmas market neophyte and I need help.
Clearly, I’ve been missing out. There are fabulous photos all over the travel pages about the famous European Christmas markets. I was practically salivating on my computer keyboard after reading, “10 Must Eat Christmas Market Foods You May Not Know“, by one of my favourite travel bloggers, Landlopers. I’m developing a powerful case of market envy.
I wondered how the tradition began. It turns out that Christmas markets actually began before Christmas. Open air street markets have a long history dating back to a time before anyone celebrated Christmas. In Europe, in the late Middle Ages, special markets would open for a day or two in the early winter to give people a chance to stock up on food and supplies for the cold months. Over time, craftspeople began setting up stands, along with booths for roasted chestnuts and other baked goods, items that could be given as gifts for Christmas.
Christmas markets in Canada
Canada has its share of Christmas markets too, with larger European-style versions in major cities like Vancouver and Toronto, and German markets in Kitchener and Quebec City.
I decided to give some smaller, local markets a try and visited two in Ottawa, Ontario, and one in Wakefield, Quebec.
While all markets have their specialties, it seems to me that certain items are universal, sacrosanct to the market culture, if you will. Gingerbread guys, as my Mom used to call them, would be high on that list, right up there with pretzels.
Maple syrup, of course
It may be a Canadian cliché, but all of the Christmas markets in Canada I visited had one or more stands featuring maple syrup and maple syrup food products, like sugar pie, or “tarte au sucre”, as it’s known in Quebec. This is hardly surprising since Canada produces 85% of the world’s maple syrup. I bought some maple fudge, made with pure maple syrup, cream and butter. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth experience.
And true to the original traditions, there were plenty of crafts by local artisans, particularly hand-made toys and carved wooden ornaments and kitchen items. Check out the Mick Jagger lips on the Santa ornaments in the lower row!
Where Christmas trees come from
There were also lots of Christmas trees, wreaths and crafts made from trees. Canada is also the number one Christmas tree exporter in the world, producing 3 – 6 million trees annually. When you see Christmas trees in European markets, there’s a good chance they came from Canada.
All three of the markets offered rides on horse drawn sleighs or wagons, depending upon the snow conditions. Like other markets, this is clearly a family affair.
Of course, Canadian winters are known for being cold. One of the Christmas markets in Canada I visited was held outside and had bonfires to help keep everyone warm. There’s something about a campfire that adds to the ambiance and conviviality of the event.
The other two markets I visited were held indoors: one in a horse barn, the other in a cattle castle. (How Canadian is that?)
The Aberdeen Pavilion in Ottawa is a national historic site because it’s the only large scale exhibition building surviving from the 19th century. Built in 1898 for agricultural fairs, it became known as the “Cattle Castle”.
Although the Christmas spirit was going strong at all of the markets, I enjoyed the outdoor market the most. Something about the crisp air, the bonfires, the smell of Christmas trees and sugar pie. Very jolly indeed. This Christmas market thing just might catch on.