The most won­der­ful time of the year

Spend­ing Christ­mas in France? So­phie Gard­ner-roberts ex­plains some of the tra­di­tions so you can en­joy a per­fect French Noël

French Property News - - Contents -

An in­sider’s guide to hav­ing your­self a very joyeux Noël in France

For some years now, my par­ents have hosted Christ­mas in the home my sib­lings and I grew up in, in north­ern Bur­gundy. Like many fam­i­lies, we have our own tra­di­tions that we take from fam­ily quirks and age-old fes­tive tra­di­tions. We’re lucky, how­ever, to be able to pick and choose from two cul­tures: Bri­tish Christ­mas, brought along with my ex­pat par­ents, and a French Noël, in­spired by our life in France since my par­ents re­lo­cated in 1988. It’s fair to say we en­joy the best of both worlds!

Merry Noël! The French en­joy their Christ­mas din­ner, le Réveil­lon (more on this later), on Christ­mas Eve while in the UK, peo­ple tuck into a fes­tive roast on Christ­mas Day. And, as Christ­mas in our fam­ily is all about good food and wine and shar­ing it with dear friends, we tend to have a ver­sion of both din­ners.

Be­ing in ru­ral Bur­gundy means we have an abun­dance of ex­cel­lent prod­ucts on the doorstep (some­times quite lit­er­ally as we have gen­er­ous neigh­bours!). We start cel­e­bra­tions with a lighter ver­sion of the Réveil­lon on Christ­mas Eve which we jok­ingly call our ‘French’ night. We tend to choose lo­cal prod­ucts over what would nor­mally con­sti­tute a tra­di­tional French Réveil­lon and so we tuck into a lux­u­ri­ous spread of smoked trout, Bur­gundy snails and foie gras which a fam­ily friend pre­pares him­self, and raise a toast with our favourite cré­mant de Bourgogne.

Our fam­ily keeps the Bri­tish tra­di­tion of wait­ing un­til Christ­mas Day to ex­change gifts and we also hang stock­ings, pull crack­ers and eat a mostly Bri­tish Christ­mas din­ner. The only French el­e­ments on the ta­ble on Christ­mas Day are usu­ally the wine, the cheese and a deca­dent choco­late log. From the UK, my par­ents try to im­port a gam­mon, crack­ers and a Christ­mas pud­ding. You can take them out of Bri­tain for 30 years…

Box­ing Day is not a thing in France so it’s of­ten a nice oc­ca­sion for us to in­vite French friends and the French girl­friends or boyfriends round to share the left­overs over a big brunch and a Buck’s Fizz or two, and even pull a few more crack­ers, try­ing to per­suade them that it is per­fectly nor­mal for re­spon­si­ble adults to wear pa­per hats around the ta­ble and play with small toys.

By the 26th, they, on the other hand, have prob­a­bly only just got over their fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions on Christ­mas Eve, which is an im­por­tant fam­ily gather­ing around a feast called le Réveil­lon. Réveil­lon rev­ellers In the build-up to Christ­mas, the French have only one thing in mind: le Réveil­lon de Noël. The term de­rives from ‘ réveil’ which means ‘wak­ing’ be­cause tak­ing part in a Réveil­lon means ev­ery­one stays awake past mid­night to en­joy a big din­ner party.

It’s im­por­tant for the French to cel­e­brate this en famille, and they will in­vite as many rel­a­tives as pos­si­ble. Friends have told me of the huge ta­bles they set up, with ev­ery­one, chil­dren and adults, hap­pily cramped to­gether.

The food served dur­ing le Réveil­lon is tra­di­tional and of­ten lux­u­ri­ous.

Fam­i­lies pre­pare spe­cial dishes for this rare oc­ca­sion when the fam­ily is to­gether and no ex­pense is spared on qual­ity prod­ucts to please ev­ery­one. Starters of­ten in­clude fresh oys­ters, snails, foie gras or even lob­ster and caviar. This is fol­lowed by a meat dish; tra­di­tion­ally roast capon, but it can be turkey, pheas­ant or any other meat that is not com­monly eaten in the house­hold such as boar or veni­son. Dishes in­cor­po­rate sea­sonal prod­ucts such as candied chest­nuts or truf­fles too.

Af­ter an ex­ten­sive cheese plat­ter, dessert con­sists of a tra­di­tional Bûche de Noël, a cake shaped like a yule log which comes in a va­ri­ety of flavours but is more of­ten than not choco­late. In Provence, peo­ple tuck into no fewer than 13 desserts, rep­re­sent­ing Je­sus and the 12 Apos­tles, and ev­ery­one around the ta­ble tries a lit­tle of each.

At mid­night and usu­ally be­fore pud­ding, the chil­dren are dis­tracted and sent away from wher­ever the Christ­mas tree is set up, so that le Père Noël can come and place his many gifts un­der the tree. The chil­dren are called back in but told they’ve just missed him. One of my friends’ fam­ily even put a half-empty glass of milk and a half-eaten cookie to show that Fa­ther Christ­mas re­ally did come!

Some peo­ple at­tend a mid­night mass held in most churches in France and those who have set up a na­tiv­ity scene will only place baby Je­sus in it af­ter they re­turn from mass.

Baubles and san­tons Dec­o­rat­ing the house and the tree is also a big part of fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions which you can adopt too. In­ci­den­tally, most French Christ­mas tra­di­tions come from Al­sace and it’s in the town of Séle­stat that Christ­mas trees first ap­peared in the 11th cen­tury.

Peo­ple used to dec­o­rate their Christ­mas trees with real fruit such as ap­ples or pears. One year when the har­vest was poor, a glass­blower from Goet­zen­bruck, in Moselle, tried to repli­cate the fruit by cre­at­ing glass balls to hang on the branches, so the story goes. From then on, the al­ready fa­mous glass­blow­ing in­dus­try of nearby Meisen­thal branched out to create glass Christ­mas baubles. You can shop tra­di­tional glass ones on­line at ciav-meisen­thal.fr or in their var­i­ous shops in Meisen­thal, Stras­bourg, Metz, Col­mar or even Paris.

Other than baubles, the French dec­o­rate their trees with fairy­lights and, in some places, rib­bons tied in pretty knots. The town of Mul­house un­veils a spe­cial Christ­mas pat­tern which is printed on elab­o­rate fab­ric dec­o­ra­tions that are hung up in town. Smaller items such as knots or table­cloths are sold on the mar­kets there.

Na­tiv­ity scenes are also com­mon and can in­clude a va­ri­ety of colour­ful char­ac­ters, par­tic­u­larly in the south of France where an old tra­di­tion of ar­ti­sanal crib fig­urines lives on to­day. Mod­elled from baked clay, san­tons are typ­i­cally hand­made and painted in Provence. The crib fig­ures in­clude the baby Je­sus, Mary and Joseph but you’ll also come across char­ac­ters such as a char­cutier, shep­herdess, mu­si­cian and an­i­mals so as to re-en­act a scene from 19th-cen­tury Provence. San­tons mar­kets are a lovely place to buy some tra­di­tional ones and there are many tak­ing place from midNovem­ber to Christ­mas Eve in and around Aix-en-provence.

At home, we like to walk in the for­est and pick wild mistle­toe ( gui), holly ( houx) and pine cones ( pommes de pain) to make more nat­u­ral dec­o­ra­tions. Some fam­i­lies will burn a yule log made of cherry wood and some­times even sprin­kle it with red wine to give an aro­matic

smell as it burns. This comes from the cus­tom of leav­ing a warm fire, food and drink should Mary and Joseph seek shel­ter dur­ing the night.

‘Tis the sea­son Don’t ex­pect your chil­dren to ap­pear in na­tiv­ity plays, as school in France is strictly sec­u­lar. The French don’t send Christ­mas cards ei­ther, so don’t be sur­prised or of­fended if you don’t re­ceive any, though my French friends have al­ways been pleas­antly sur­prised to re­ceive one! French ra­dio sta­tions aren’t plagued by 1980s Christ­mas songs like they are in the UK. How­ever, if you want to lis­ten to some French Christ­mas mu­sic, find a com­pi­la­tion of chants de Noël per­formed by Tino Rossi who re­mains a real sym­bol of Christ­mas à la française.

There are, how­ever, a num­ber of other ways to en­joy the fes­tive sea­son in France. Chil­dren can write to Fa­ther Christ­mas, as any­where in the world, but in France, he replies! A law was passed in 1962, stat­ing that chil­dren who had writ­ten to Père Noël must re­ceive a re­sponse. For over four decades, the postal cen­tre in Li­bourne in Gironde has replied to countless chil­dren on be­half of Père Noël, with thank you notes and en­chant­ing sea­sonal greet­ings. As long as a let­ter is ad­dressed to Le Père Noël (you don’t even need to put a stamp on it), it will reach his lit­tle ‘elves’.

In Lor­raine, Nor­mandy and Pas-de-calais, cel­e­bra­tions start on 6 De­cem­ber for Saint Ni­cholas’ Day. The night be­fore, chil­dren are told to put their shoes by the fire­place and lis­ten to sto­ries of the pro­tec­tor of chil­dren. The next morn­ing, they wake to find gifts if they have been good, or lumps of char­coal if not, dropped by the sin­is­ter Père Fou­et­tard (Fa­ther Spanker).

You can en­joy a fun fam­ily day out at a Christ­mas mar­ket too. There are marchés de Noël ev­ery­where but those in Al­sace are par­tic­u­larly lovely, es­pe­cially in en­chant­ing towns such as Col­mar and Mul­house. Shop for tra­di­tional Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions and gifts while warm­ing your hands round a cup of vin chaud and try­ing Christ­mas treats. Joyeux Noël!

Christ­mas in Al­sace in the city of Col­mar

se u ho ul M de le Mul­house Christ­mas © Vil mar­ket

A choco­late bûche de Noël© m ar il y n a - G et ty I m ag es / ist oc kp ho to

Find tra­di­tional dec­o­ra­tions at Christ­mas mar­kets

Vo­cab­u­lary Joyeux Noël! Bonnes/joyeuses fêtes! Bon Réveil­lon Stras­bourg is known as ‘la cap­i­tale de Noël’

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