Celebrating Christmas in France is a joyful experience steeped in rich traditions. Many of them are recognizable to us, as our Christmas traditions are European in origin. Read on to see how many of these traditions are common in your home. And maybe adopt some new ones that seem particularly tasty (Bûche de Noël, anyone?).
Celebrating Christmas in France is a joyful experience steeped in rich customs and traditions. Many of the traditions are centered around food, family, charity and the story of the Nativity.
Most French homes display la crèche; a Nativity scene at the heart of the Christmas celebration. The scene’s clay figurines symbolize the Holy Family, saints, the magi, shepherds, as well as more contemporary community characters like policemen and bakers.
On Christmas Eve, children place their shoes by the fireplace in hopes that Santa Claus, or Père, or Papa, Noël will fill them with gifts.
In the eastern regions of France, Père Noël may be seen with his helper Père Fouettard, who keeps the naughty or nice list and delivers spankings to those less-deserving children.
In 1962, France passed a law that anyone writing a letter to Père Noël must receive a reply. We are not sure who enforces this law, or who answers all the letters.
Overnight, the sapin de Noël, or Christmas tree, is magically decorated with small gifts, candies and fruit. And mistletoe is a common site in French homes, hanging from door frames as a promise of good luck for all who pass under it.
Out in the street, actors and puppeteers reenact the Nativity story, and shop windows are colorfully decorated, often containing a sapin de Noël and la crèche. Families and friends exchange small gifts and celebrate with elaborate dinners and parties.
The Christmas Feast
Le Réveillon is a traditional late night feast or party held when families return from la Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve. While the food tradition varies from region to region, the meal is full of lavish delicacies including oysters, foie gras, escargot and roasted fowl. Le Réveillon feast is traditionally accompanied by wines such as Anjou, Champagne, Muscadet, and Sauternes. Dessert always includes la Bûche de Noël, or Yule Log, a cylindrical sponge cake filled and frosted with chocolate buttercream.
Photo: Christopher Testani, Bon Appetit – recipe here.
Regional Christmas Meals in France
In the Alsace Region of Northwestern France, a traditional meal is stuffed goose served with sauerkraut, foie gras, warm mulled wine, pain d’épices (gingerbread), and bredeles— Christmas cookies typically flavored with anise, cinnamon, or orange. We have an Alsatian goose recipe here.
In the Dijon and Burgundy regions of central France, the Christmas dinner is a turkey stuffed with chestnuts and accompanied by a Volnay or Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune wine, foie gras, finishing with la Bûche de Noël for dessert.
In Provence, Le Réveillon concludes with the presentation of the 13 desserts that represent Jesus and the Twelve Apostles. These confectioneries include dried fruits and nuts, pain d’epices, La Bûche de Noël, pompe à l’huile, a flavored bread consisting of orange flower water and olive oil, and Calissons d’Aix, a marzipan pastry topped with a sugar icing.
In the Southwest, you might find a special dish called Figuigers. In the region that brought you foie gras, this is a duck fed on figs for the last two weeks of its life, then completely deboned and stuffed with a whole lobe of foie gras.
Home for Christmas Dinner
We can help you feast like the French with foie gras, a goose, French caviar, olive oil and chestnuts, or even a cassoulet, made with our handy recipe kit. And there are always French Kisses, plump, juicy prunes marinated in Armagnac and filled with mousse of foie gras … serve them near the mistletoe.