Christmas in France

December 22, 2014

The Christmas festivities in France vary from regions to regions – they always mean family reunions, gifts for the children, Midnight Mass and the Réveillon, and are mostly celebrated on 24 or 25 December.

In north-east France, the Christmas season begins on 6 December with the Fête de Saint-Nicolas, when St Nicolas traditionally brings an orange and gingerbread to good children. He is usually accompanied by Père Fouettard who is dressed in black. The largest celebrations take place in Nancy and at the basilica of St Nicolas de Port, dedicated to St Nicolas.

However in the majority of French regions, Christmas is celebrated on 25 December or on Christmas Eve.  Traditionally people used to attend the Midnight Mass on 24 December to celebrate the birth of Jesus, which was followed by a huge feast called the Réveillon.  Nowadays few people attend the Midnight Mass but the Réveillon is still a very important part of the festivities when families gather for the traditional Christmas menu with oysters, foie gras, boudin blanc, goose, capon or turkey stuffed with chestnuts.

Throughout the Christmas season, there are special desserts such as the bûche de Noël, a log shaped cake made from sponge cake filed with chocolate butter cream and decorated with powdered sugar to represent snow, tree branches with berries made of chocolate and mushrooms made of meringue. In Provence, the tradition is to serve the 13 desserts consisting of dried fruits, nuts, fresh fruits and sweets such as biscotins or calissons from Aix, candied lemons, gingerbread and many more.

On the 24 December, before going to bed, children put their shoes (and not their stockings) in front of the fireplace or under the Christmas tree, hoping that Father Christmas will fill them with gifts, and the presents are usually opened on Christmas morning.

The Sapin de Noël, or Christmas Tree, is the main decoration in homes, street and shops, together with many other decorations and lights. The Christmas Tree appeared in Alsace in the 14th century, decorated with apples, paper flowers and ribbons and was introduced in France in 1837.

Another important aspect of a French Christmas is the crèche, or crib, filled with santons of Provence, and displayed at home but also crèches displayed in churches which sometimes are living crèches with real animals and people.

The santons are small figurines made of clay and brightly painted, and used in nativity scenes. They first appeared in Provence at the end of the 18th century and originally the santon characters only represented the Nativity scene with the Kings and the Shepherds. Later on the santon makers created new characters inspired by the people of Provence.

Christmas markets are also part of the Christmas traditions and they represent the ideal opportunity to enjoy some Christmas atmosphere and some great shopping.

Alsace has a big tradition of Christmas markets in towns such as Strasbourg, Mulhouse & Colmar.

Strasbourg is the oldest Christmas market in France and has been holding its famous market near its impressive cathedral since 1570.

In northern France, the Lille market takes place on Place Rihour and in Arras, it is set against the arcades of the Grand Place. Cities such as Metz, Nancy, Reims, Amiens, Dijon, and of course Paris, all have Christmas markets. In the south of France, you will also find them in cities such as Toulouse, Bordeaux, Avignon & Nice. In most towns you will find wooden chalets, sparkling with fairy lights, the smell of traditional French gastronomy and mulled wine, and a variety of craft items for sale, all you need to enjoy the Christmas traditions. The markets usually run from the end of November till the beginning of January.

Happy Christmas in France !

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