Stepping out into the nippy, late-autumn air to stroll the cobbled streets of Paris is the surest way to find oneself engulfed in the yuletide spirit. Overnight, gussied-up Christmas trees appear on the doorsteps of boutiques and boulangeries throughout the city, and the stately plane trees hemming the Champs Elysées suddenly sparkle with the magic of a thousand twinkling lights. Further down the famous boulevard, diminutive white cabins that will form the Marché de Noël sprout like mushrooms, exuding the warming, homey fragrance of gingerbread and mulled wine.
Of all the holiday customs that add to Paris’s bountiful charm, it’s the proliferation of almost-Dickensian chestnut vendors that many locals look forward to most. In other corners of the city, annual rituals with a festive allure also begin to flourish; at the grands magasins (department stores), all-ages audiences gather to ogle elaborate window displays replete with mechanical elves and reindeer, while entire families—gleaming skates strapped to their feet—glide across the ice at the Hotel de Ville’s outdoor rink. But of all the holiday customs that add to Paris’s bountiful charm, it’s the proliferation of almost-Dickensian chestnut vendors that many locals look forward to most.
Finding a neighborhood marchand de marrons is easy: follow the woodsy-smelling plumes of smoke to the nearest street corner, métro stop, or busy pedestrian promenade. There, fanning the flames of a makeshift outdoor oven, you’ll likely discover a man of South Indian origin gently rotating dozens of piping hot, ping-pong sized morsels. While he works, crowds form around him to watch the spectacle, warm their hands over the spitting fire, and procure cones of nuts that are meant to be eaten on the go.
To experience this tradition like a local, take the métro to Place des Abbesses, at the foot of Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre. The picturesque square exudes a special village-like coziness in wintertime, helped along by the pop-up Christmas market, colorful children’s carousel, and street accordionists who serenade passersby with old-timey French tunes. In the center of the holiday hustle and bustle, a long-established chestnut vendor does brisk business. In exchange for a few euro, he’ll hand you a small bag, which releases a little puff of steam as you unravel it in the chilly air. Peel back the marron’s charred husk, pop one of the savory treasures into your mouth, et voilà! You’ve earned the title of Honorary Parisian, carrying on a tradition that feels almost as old as Christmas itself.