Christmas in France is a time for family get-togethers, a religious festival and a celebration for both adults and children alike.
Before going to bed, French children leave a shoe by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Père Noël. Traditionally wooden clogs, called sobots, were left for ‘le petit Jesus’. Nowadays it is Père Noël who visits the houses with Père Fouettard (Father Spanker) who tells him whether the children have behaved and deserve gifts or a spank. Sweets, nuts, fruit and small toys are also hung on the Christmas tree.
Some families start celebrating on 6th December, with presents from Saint Nicolas, others wait for Père Noël until Christmas Day and adults with a lot of patience do not give each other presents until New Year’s Day! Over this period children reenact the birth of Christ in plays or watch puppet shows in village squares.
Many families still attend ‘la Messe de Minuit’ (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve and afterwards, either at home or in a restaurant, tuck into the main feast of Christmas, called ‘Le Réveillon’. However it is becoming more and more popular to have this meal on Christmas Day. The menu varies in each region: in Alsace, goose is eaten; in Burgundy, they have turkey and chestnuts; in Paris, oysters and foie gras and in Brittany, buckwheat cakes with sour cream.
The yule log, or ‘bûche de Noël’, a cake made of chocolate and chestnuts, is the main desert in France and in some houses a real log is left burning from Christmas Eve until the Twelfth Night. In the Périgord region of southwest France this is to commemorate the pagan tradition of the Gaulois to insure a good harvest or to protect the house from thunder. In other areas the log (or sometimes a candle) is left in case the Virgin Mary visits and is a reminder that Jesus had nothing to keep him warm apart from the “breath of the mules” when he was born in the stable.
The ‘sapin de noel’ (Christmas tree) is said to have come to France through the Alsace region (then belonging to Germany) in the 14th Century, brought by German princess, Hélène de Mecklembourg after her marriage to the French Duke of Orléans, heir to the French throne. Although the Christmas tree is popular nowadays, the main focus in French homes at Christmastime is the Nativity Scene, or ‘crèche’. Besides the main characters of the Holy Family, the Shepherds and the Three Kings, the crèche is also filled with figures called ‘santons’ (little saints), generally made from clay by craftsmen in the south of France. Houses are also decorated with mistletoe, which is said to bring good luck.
New Year is also very important for the French and this is when greeting cards and more gifts are exchanged between friends and family.
The final celebration of the Christmas season is ‘la Fête des Rois’, Feast of the Kings on the last of the twelve days of Christmas. On this day a special cake is baked called La Gallete des Rois, which contains a small ‘fève’ (charm) inside it. The person who finds the charm is crowned King or Queen for the day.