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
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’