The Living France Guide to… Christmas
PUBLISHED: 16:17 11 December 2012 | UPDATED: 16:31 28 September 2015
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With sumptuous gastronomy, poignant festivals and spectacular markets, Christmas in France is a feast for all the senses that is both familiar and unique, writes Kate McNally
France has been a secular society for more than 100 years but the country’s secular laws have not so far extended to a ‘bah humbug’ ban on Christmas celebrations. That said, State schools do not focus on the religious meaning of Christmas so for many children in France, the special event is all about Santa, the Christmas tree and, of course, presents. For adults, it is primarily about spending money and eating large amounts of food; so in many ways Christmas in France is not so different from that of many European countries.
Despite this, most French Christmas traditions stem from the centuries-long period when the Catholic faith was prevalent across the country and, whether the current French state likes it or not, it is impossible to escape the underlying religious influence at Christmas time.
The principal Christmas celebration in France is the slap-up family meal which takes place on Christmas Eve and is known as le réveillon. Extended family members come together to sit around the table for hours, working their way through a feast of hot and cold delights. These vary from region to region – turkey and roasted meats in Alsace and Burgundy, oysters in Bordeaux, black pudding in Lorraine, 13 desserts in Provence (representing Christ and his 12 apostles) and foie gras all over l’Hexagone – but the general idea of the ‘gros souper’ or big supper, as it’s known in the south, is that multiple smaller dishes are brought to the table one after the other to be savoured at leisure.
The tradition stems from the time when Christmas Eve was the end of a religious fasting period with the measly dishes of steamed fish, nuts, dates and oranges representing the theme of abstinence. Over the years, the ‘measly’ dishes grew in gastronomic stature and most households today push out the boat as far as the purse strings allow for le réveillon.
Mass on Christmas Eve – whether at midnight or earlier in the evening – remains the most popular mass over the festive period in France.
Midnight mass is still very much the tradition and you should be able to find a midnight service somewhere in the area. However, many parishes have brought the service forward to early evening (around 6pm) which means that families can attend mass together before, rather than after, le réveillon. Perhaps the combination of fatigue and a full belly was causing a large part of the congregation to nod off in their hymnals!
Of course, you also have the option of Christmas morning mass. However, this is generally a less festive occasion. For example, the children of the congregation will often perform a short nativity scene as part of the principal Christmas mass and it is more likely that this will be the Christmas Eve service.
France shares many of the Christmas symbols that are known across the world. Père Noël, for example, is happy and hearty, clad in a red suit with fluffy white trim, and distributes presents down the chimney for little children across the country. But rather than hanging out stockings for Santa’s presents, French children traditionally put out a pair of slippers and leave out a bite to eat and drink for the man himself and his reindeer.
These days, the bulk of presents are placed under the Christmas tree. As in the UK, the sapin de Noël is pretty much de rigueur in France, both in the home and in public areas, though they are more simply decorated with a few baubles and a star on top. The majority of gifts are for children and, as a general rule, there is no brouhaha about who gave what and writing thank you notes for the rest of the holidays as they are simply given to each child as a collective offering, and the littler children of course still believe they all come from the ever-so-generous Papa Noël.
Adults may exchange a small gift at Christmas, though it is more customary for adult family members to offer a present around New Year and Epiphany celebrations, and then it tends more towards the simple, such as a book, chocolates or flowers. In many families, it is the younger adults who offer a present to the elderly statesmen and women of the clan as a token of affection and recognition of their significance in the family.
As well as putting up the Christmas tree together as a family, another tradition in many French homes is creating the nativity scene. Families enjoy taking the diminutive figurines out of storage and arranging the key players – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, kings, shepherds – as well as various farm animals and villagers in the stable setting. Some people also like to include twigs, moss and little pine cones to add a rustic touch to the tableau.
Although the depiction of the nativity scene in churches dates back to the Middle Ages, the popularity of the figurines, known as santons, took off after the French Revolution following a ban on the nativity crèche in public areas. People bought the miniature santons to recreate the scene in their own home. Originally, the figurines were made from breadcrumbs, wax or wood, but over the years, as the santon industry developed in the south of France, fired clay became the material of choice.
Though not quite in the league of the German Christmas markets, the French know a thing or two about markets and many towns and villages put on a good show at the end of the year, while in the major cities you can find whole streets dedicated to the familiar wooden chalet stalls.
Local artisans come to sell their wares and you can find a wonderful range of hand-crafted gifts – pottery, textiles, jewellery – for that ‘something different’ to give your loved ones. Needless to say, there are also plenty of food and wine stalls to stock up for your own Christmas or to take along as an offering to your hosts over the festive period.
The marchés de Noël normally appear across France around the third weekend in November.
La fête des Lumières
If you are in or around Lyon on 8 December, don’t miss the Festival of Lights in the evening when inhabitants light candles in their windows in homage to the Virgin Mary. Although originally nothing to do with Christmas – the tradition dates back to an event in 1850 when a statue of Mary was supposed to be erected on the hill above the city on 8 September but due to delays was installed on 8 December – this twinkly occasion has now become an integral part of the city’s Christmas festivities.
La galette des rois
The Epiphany, which falls on 6 January, marks the official end of the Christmas period and the French mark the occasion with a special cake – the galette des rois. On sale in boulangeries and baked in many homes, the galette is typically shared with the family.
Usually a bean (fèvre), considered a sign of fertility, or alternatively a tiny figurine, is hidden in the cake. The youngest member of the family hides under the table and chooses in turn who receives each share of the cake. The person who finds the bean is crowned king or queen for the day.
Needless to say, this provides a great deal of excitement for younger children, similar to the British tradition of hiding a coin in the Christmas pudding. LF