A FRENCH CHRISTMAS
‘Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry so where better to spend Christmas than in France? Catriona Burns discovers how the French celebrate the most wonderful time of the year
As the festive season gets into full swing, we share how the French celebrate with their own traditions and customs
For a country as famed for its food and wine, lauded for its joie de vivre spirit and revered for its deep-rooted traditions as France, it comes as no surprise to find that the French know a thing or two about celebrating Christmas. From the festive feasts and enchanting markets to the magical make-believe for children and sweet family traditions, France’s seasonal festivities can be traced back many years, and today the country still continues to champion the classic Christmas ideal. So, regardless of whether you’re spending Christmastime in France or not, take on these customs to celebrate the festive season in true French style.
Everyone knows that the French can lay on a feast, but the seasonal spread exceeds all expectations. While we Brits tuck into our turkey dinners anytime from 1pm on the main day itself, the French traditionally have their main meal – Le Réveillon – after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It may be a late-night feast in the strictest sense, but it is one worth staying up for. The impressive banquet includes seasonal favourites such as oysters with mignonette sauce, snails, foie gras, candied chestnuts and capon, a cockerel or rooster bird. If you can manage it, dessert is usually bûche de Noël, a chocolate sponge cake shaped to resemble a yule log. First created in France
in the 1800s by a pâtissier from Lyon, Monaco or Paris (depending on who’s telling the tale), the traditional dessert pays homage to the French tradition of burning a yule log during the festive period. While a small glass of sweet liqueur is the perfect accompaniment to the chocolate pudding, a merry flow of champagne is preferred with the main course.
“I love Christmas dinner in France,” says Claudia Barker who moved from London to Paris five years ago. “Now, even if I go back to the UK, I make the traditional feast for my family on Christmas Eve, although we don’t eat quite as late as the French do!”
The French festive dining experience is most definitely a marathon, not a sprint, as festive feasts continue into the New Year (a similar banquet to Christmas Eve is held on the last night of the year).
Perhaps the most charming of the culinary customs happens on 6 January when families go to the boulangerie to buy the traditional treat of galette des rois to mark the feast of Epiphany. A puff pastry cake, the dessert that dates back to the 14th century hides a figurine in its layers of pastry, butter and ground almonds.
Traditionally, the family gather round to cut the cake with the youngest child hiding under the table, instructing who should get each piece, so as no one can cheat. Whoever bites into a slice with the enclosed trinket is crowned king or queen for the day, bringing the custom of eating like royalty for almost two weeks to a very sweet end.
DECK THE HALLS
With a dusting of snow falling behind Christmas shoppers, steaming mugs of mulled wine and traditional handmade crafts, France’s marchés de Noël that take place in many towns and villages often resemble a real-life Christmas snow globe. It’s also where many French people come to enjoy some old-fashioned festive shopping and buy decorations or Christmas gifts (where a quality over quantity strategy is favoured).
Although French decorations are more understated than the more extravagant style that’s popular in the UK, French families still like to dress up the interior of their homes with festive cheer. The Nativity is an important part of the French Christmas decor where, alongside the Holy Family, shepherds and three kings, you can spot more unconventional figures including a butcher, baker or police officer in the crèche that’s left on display until 2 February.
Making its first appearance in Sélestat in Alsace in the 11th century, (the first town in the country to authorise the felling of a tree for Christmas) the sapin de Noël became a common feature in French households in the 1830s. Traditionally decorated with apples, paper flowers and ribbons, they are now more commonly adorned with baubles and fairy lights.
The Advent tradition from Provence where moist wheat from the previous harvest is placed in cups to germinate in celebration of St Barbara’s Day on 4 December is also rather romantic. The flowering green shoots are then used to adorn the table on Christmas day.
It’s also traditional to kiss under the mistletoe ( le gui) in France, although this is usually saved for the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve .
Many of France’s long-standing traditions were created to keep the magical
mystique of the festive season alive, such as the law that was passed in 1962, stating that children who had written to Père Noël must receive a postcard by way of response. For over four decades, the postal centre in Libourne in Gironde has replied to countless children (some from as far away as Russia) on behalf of Père Noël, with thank you notes and enchanting seasonal greetings.
For children in France, there’s also the added bonus of enjoying the giftgiving season for that little bit longer, with Christmas celebrations starting on 6 December for St Nicholas’ Day. On the eve of these festivities, children place their shoes near to the fireplace as they sing traditional songs or hear stories about the saint from grandparents, before waking in the morning to find their shoes filled with treats – if they’ve been good – while other children who have featured on St Nicholas’ naughty list will find a bundle of twigs tied together with ribbon.
The charm of Christmas continues into adulthood with the tradition of bringing yule logs made from cherry wood into the home on Christmas Eve. To give the tradition a truly French twist, some people sprinkle the log with red wine so that it will have an aromatic smell when it burns. In a humble gesture to honour the beginning of Christmas, it was customary to leave the log and candles burning throughout the night, with some drinks and food, should Mary and the baby arrive during the night.
“I love France at Christmastime,” enthuses Claudia. “There seems to be less emphasis on buying big presents here and more focus on eating lots of good food and enjoying time with family,” she says.
That, it seems, really is the true spirit of Christmas. Joyeux Noël.
“There is a focus on eating lots of good food and enjoying time with family”