Gardens of the Cross Timbers: All things sparkly and shiny

Becky Emerson Carlberg
A black Poplar.

In the tradition that has been going in Strasbourg since 1492, Strasbourg, the capital of Christmas, put up its tree the first week in November. The first symbol of Christmas. Taking 120 hours, the tree was cut by tree surgeons and prepared to be removed from a forest in Meurthe-et-Moselle in extreme northwest France. Two cranes, one weighing 100 tons, and the other 50 tons, were positioned on each side of the tree before it was chopped to keep it from falling over. Took 2 hours to place the tree on the trailer with minimal damage. Each branch was painstakingly folded and tied to the tree.

The Strasbourg Tree.

Two cranes and twenty people (five from the French National Forestry Office) helped lift upright the 80-year-old, seven ton tree that reached 98 feet into the sky. Fifteen minutes later, the tree was standing straight, its trunk wedged into a concrete base where it was supported until the concrete was dry.

Two climbers (called squirrels), a dozen electricians, eight landscape designers and two 130-foot-tall cherry pickers (machines with buckets hoisted by hydraulic lifts) were involved.

Fifty to eighty hand-picked additional branches from other trees were embedded within the tree to add to the plumpness. The fir was decorated with 4.3 miles of twinkling lights, over 300 flashing lights, forty balls and golden stars each 25 inches large, 240 illuminated cherubs, 200 twinkling bouquets, 400 gold and red baubles, 180 lit angels, and wood candle, cookies, star and apple ornaments. The tree was lighted on November 26th when the Christmas Markets opened.

The same day the lights were turned on (Nov. 26th) all eleven Christmas Markets (400 small huts arranged in open air street markets) opened in the Old Town. They are scheduled to last until December 26th, unless the situation with Covid changes in France.

The French are taking every precaution. The snowy cold day we were there, signs were posted emphasizing no food to be eaten in the Christmas Markets unless in designated areas. To enter those, you must show proof of a current negative PCR certificate as well as photo ID and vaccination card. Trios of armed police carrying semi-automatic rifles were wandering through the markets.

Strasbourg and Colmar are both in the Alsace region between France and Germany. Striking half-timbered houses line the streets in the old sections. Heavy timber, rather than precut lumber, form a framework around panels of natural plaster or bricks. In the past, broadaxes were used to shape the wood in a tradition that extends back thousands of years. Most have second floors that jut out a few feet over the first floor. Taxes were paid on the area covered by the foundation. The extra space above was not taxed!

Colmar Christmas Markets were going full steam the night before. Everyone wore masks. You could be fined on the spot $200 if caught without a mask.

Sparkling lights, shiny ornaments, Christmas tunes, spiced wine, traditional food and gifts dotted the small city. While waiting for our group to gather for the walk to the bus at sunset, thousands of Jackdaws, accompanied by rooks, ravens and black European carrion crows, flew overhead.

Little Venice Colmar.

Members of the crow family are called Corvids. These birds are intelligent, very social, and mate for life. Jackdaws in particular love to collect shiny objects. Its’ call is melodic and happy, not like the usual harsh cawing of the American crow. But then, our crow has a repertoire of over 20 different calls. People were in such a festive spirit down below, no one noticed the enormous bird population soaring above them. The birds settled down for the night along the eves of roofs and trees in their winter communal roost.

The way through the Black Forest was on winding wet roads. We passed several wine growing villages and a 12th century moss covered combined house and barn. People lived in one side and animals the other. “What about the smell?” The response: “The animals don’t mind!” As we traveled over the highest point (over 4,000 feet) the snow continued to fall on the winter wonderland.

No more Christmas Market in Hofgut, a Black Forest village. The small decorated huts were being dismantled and moved as the snow fell. The Omnicron virus strikes again. Only a few walking paths had been cleared between the Hotel Hofgut Sternen, two restaurants and craft shops that sold cuckoo clocks, blown glass figures and other touristy items.

The Black Forest Cake demonstration. The cook in his jaunty white chef hat (toque blanche) quipped we were a rather quiet lot. Jet Lag, yes? He flipped one layer of chocolate cake onto a plate stand, covered it with sour cherries and cherry jam but the very middle had no cherries for easier cutting later. The entire layer was slathered with whipped cream. The second layer was placed on top, doused generously with Kirschwasser (cherry) schnaps and another coat of whipped cream. The third layer was covered in more whipped cream and decorated with shaved chocolate. The impressive cake was marked into 16 pieces. One whipped cream curl and cherry was put on each ‘slice.’ It was delicious.

An old dilapidated house sat off the road in Hofgut. Three offers had been made on the historic house, but funding could not be secured. Renovation would be more expensive than the value of the house. Couldn’t tear it down because it is a listed Class One house. A dilemma.

During a late-night walk along the Rhine, I passed this enormous native European cottonwood (Populus nigra). The member of the willow family is in danger of going extinct. Too much hybridization resulting in fewer pure black poplars. It’s habitat, alluvial forests that grow along rivers, is also disappearing. As part of the Preserve Rare Tree Species project, black poplars were counted and their DNA analyzed. Results: the poplars are still widespread and number 65,000.

On that positive note, have a Happy Yule, Y’all!

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at

A 12th century barn.