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

Living France - - Contents -

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.

FES­TIVE FOOD

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 .

CHRIST­MAS MAGIC

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”

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