Greetings: “Joyeaux Noel” for Merry Christmas and “Joyeuses Fetes” for Happy Holidays!
Christmas in France is a time for family gatherings, celebrations and generosity. The celebration varies by region but in most provinces is celebrated on December 25th. In others the season begins on December 6th with the celebration of St. Nicholas Day or the 8th when homage is paid to the Virgin Mary with candles lighting up the windows in the town. The season ends with Epiphany in January which is when some adults exchange gifts. In many countries Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th but in France it’s celebrated on the first Sunday after the 1st of January.
On Christmas Eve children in France leave a shoe in front of the fireplace before bed hoping that Pere Noel (Papa Christmas) will fill it with presents during the night. Fruit, nuts, candy and small toys will also be hung on the tree overnight. Pere Fouettard (Father Spanker) visits with Papa Noel and tells him whether children deserve presents or a spank.
A law was passed in 1962 in France declaring that all letters written to Santa shall be responded to with a postcard.
For many families, la Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) is still an important part of Christmas. After Mass, comes ‘Le Reveillon,’ meaning to wake up or revive. This celebration meal is considered the culinary peak of the season and is to be enjoyed at home, in an all night cafe or in a restaurant. It is symbolic of the meaning of the birth of Christ. Today it’s becoming popular to enjoy this celebration meal on Christmas day. After Reveillon it is customary for a candle to be left burning in case the Virgin Mary passes by.
The sapin de Noel (Christmas tree) decorates homes, streets, offices, and shops during the season. It is said to have been brought to France in the 14th Century through the Alsace region (then belonging to Germany) by a German princesses’s marriage to the heir to the French throne. The Christmas tree is the center of many homes during the holidays but the main focus is on the creche (Nativity Scene). The creche is often filled with figures called santons (little saints) crafted of clay in Southern France. Living creches in the form of plays and puppet shows are commonly performed based on the Nativity to teach the importance of Christianity and the Christmas celebration. The main characters are the Holy Family, the shepards and the Three Kings. Mistletoe is hung in homes above the door to bring good fortune throughout the year.
Traditionally the la Fete des Rois (Feast of the Kings) is the last of the 12 days of Christmas from December 26th through January 6th. In France this celebration takes place the first Sunday after January 1st. The day is also known as Epiphany. In celebration, a round cake is baked with a small charm inside. The person who finds the charm is King or Queen for the day!
A traditional French Christmas dinner varies by region and might include turkey and chestnuts in Burgundy, goose in Alsace, oysters and foie gras in Paris and buckwheat cakes with sour cream in Brittany. The world famous ‘buche de Noel’ (Yule Log) is the center of dessert. It’s a rich cake made of chocolate and chestnuts in the shape of a log.