Christmas in France, like any country, is (excuse the pun) wrapped up in traditions.
Some French people, especially in the east and northern parts of the country, celebrate St Nicolas on 6 December (like Holland and Nordic countries). In Alsace children put boots out overnight to find them filled the next morning with fresh clementines, pain d’épices (gingerbread) and chocolates.
St Nicolas is seen as a protector of children and a bearer of gifts for them. He is accompanied by Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) who gives out lumps of coal or floggings to naughty children!
Fête des Lumières
Christmas in France has come to involve other celebrations too. In Lyon the famous Fête des Lumières takes place on the 8 December and the whole city is lit up. The tradition here is to put candles in your windows as a show of respect to the Virgin Mary.
In 1643 there was a plague and town councillors promised to pay tribute to Mary if the city was spared. Ever since there has been an annual procession to the Basilica Fouvière in this city to light candles and give offerings in Mary’s name.
The Basilica is lit up in different colours and a light show takes place in the main square, Place des Terreaux. Around 4 million visitors come to Lyon for the weekend of festivities and hotels are booked out for up to a year in advance.
Most French people I know have their main celebration meal on the evening of the 24 December. Known as le réveillon, it used to take place after midnight mass, so Christmas Day really, but has become more popular (and practical) on Christmas Eve. Many families open their presents at this time, whilst others put out stockings ready for the next day.
Christmas in France means pushing the boat out food-wise! The following are commonly found at meals during this festive time:
Salad with Foie gras, accompanied by fig bread or pain d’épices and chutney.
Turkey or Capon are the norm but quite a few seem to like doe or wild boar.
Gratin dauphinois is a popular choice to go with the meat.
Oysters (but these tend to be consumed more at New Years Eve).
Bûche de Noel (Christmas log) for dessert is a must – the traditional one is chocolate and chestnut but all flavours are possible. The dessert represents a log which burns from Christmas Eve to New Years Day in the Périgord region and originates from a Pagan Gaul tradition.
The festive season
Christmas Cards have never been sent as much as they are in the UK but there is certainly more choice and availability now than when I first arrived.
The French tend to prefer sending cards between Christmas and New Year, which often say either ‘Meilleurs Voeux’ (Best Wishes) or ‘Bonne Année’ (Happy New Year).
Nativity plays don’t take in public schools as French law requires the Church and State to be separate, so public schools cannot endorse or promote any religious dogma. And there are certainly no pantomimes to entertain anyone!