5 French Christmas traditions
Thinking of spending the festive period in France? Louise Sayers explains 5 key French Christmas and seasonal traditions that you need to know about if you are to celebrate Noël like a local
French Christmas markets Christmas markets – or marchés de Noël – are a popular French Christmas tradition. Christmas markets now take place in most cities in France, often starting the last weekend of November and running throughout December. The stalls sell festive handmade gifts, food and mulled wine (vin chaud).
The oldest Christmas market in France is Strasbourg’s Christkindelsmarik and can be traced back to 1570. The market has more than 300 chalet stalls arranged across 11 areas of the city selling arts and crafts, food and Alsatian Christmas decorations.
Strasbourg also claims to be the birthplace of the traditional Christmas tree. In the Middle Ages the Alsatians played ‘Games of Paradise’, which depicted the history of creation and always featured a fir tree covered in apples in front of the churches. The custom of having a tree decorated with apples and biscuits in the home quickly became popular. One year, when apples were scarce, glass-blowers produced decorative versions and thus the Christmas bauble was born. The tradition quickly spread around the world in the late 19th century, as the Alsatians fled to escape war. Every year there is a giant Christmas tree in Place Kléber in Strasbourg.
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Christmas cards and nativity plays
The run-up to Christmas in France is not that different from the UK, featuring Advent calendars, towns and villages bedecked in lights, tinsel and all things sparkly, Christmas trees and le Père Noël. One big difference, however, is that it is not customary to send cards, although some people do these days and you will find a paltry selection of extortionately priced offerings in the shops. As a business, we tend to receive cards to welcome in the New Year and to wish us Bonne année for the coming year.
Although France is a Catholic country, French law dictates that state and religious activities are separate and, as a result, state schools offer no religious education. Most French children miss out on the rite of passage of sticking a tea towel on their heads and pretending to be a shepherd in the nativity play.
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Christmas traditions in different areas of France
Each region in France has its own traditions. In Catalonia in southern Occitanie, we have the ‘charming’ Christmas caganer. The word literally means `defecator’; it’s actually more base than that, but you get the idea. Anyway, the caganer is a little fellow who you will find hidden away in a corner of the traditional Christmas crib scene along with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and assorted animals. He is usually dressed in a floppy red hat, depicted mid-squat with a bare bottom and a brown deposit underneath him! In fact, the caganer is a symbol of fertility and good luck. Many years ago, it was said that a nativity scene without the caganer would make a man’s soil infertile and cause his vegetables to fail. These days, no celebrity is spared the ‘honour’ of being cast as a caganer. You can buy models of famous footballers, politicians, rock stars and even our own Queen.
In Provence, there is the traditional santon, a crib figure modelled from baked clay. Found at Christmas markets and special Foire aux Santons, the figures date back to the French Revolution when churches were closed, nativity scenes were banned and the Provençaux began to make their own cribs. They are a miniature re-enactment of 19th-century Provençal county life with figures including a shepherdess, fisherman, miller, musicians and goats alongside Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
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Christmas dinner in France
The night before Christmas is called le Réveillon, which comes from the verb reveiller, meaning ‘to wake up’ (confusingly, the same term is used for New Year’s Eve and the French often miss out the qualifying du Nouvel An or de Noël). Traditionally, Christmas Eve is when the French have their big Christmas blow-out meal.
Throughout December, speciality shops and supermarkets sell the festive delicacies for the big celebration meal(s) including foie gras, oysters, snails and the bûche de Noël (Yule log). The centrepiece of the meal is a capon, goose or turkey, stuffed with chestnuts, which is then served with a variety of trimmings including boudin blanc (white pudding).
As you would expect, Christmas Day is a bank holiday or jour ferié in France, so everything shuts down as most people spend the day with their families. Boxing Day is, however, a normal working day, although increasingly many businesses are shutting down between Christmas and New Year.
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Christmas celebrations are brought to a close on 6 January at Epiphany. This celebrates when the three kings first saw baby Jesus. While in Britain this day passes almost unnoticed, in France it is celebrated by everyone with a galette des rois (cake of the kings). You will see these in every bakery and supermarket throughout the month of January.
It is a flat cake of puff pastry filled with marzipan and traditionally it contains a fève (originally a dried bean, now more often a small toy).
The tirage des rois is loved by children. The youngest crawls under the table as the cake is cut and dictates who should receive each slice. The person who finds the fève in their slice becomes king for the feast/day, gets to wear a crown and choose their queen.