Like every country in Christendom, France has a range of Christmas traditions, local and nationwide. I explore a few in this post. Christmas used to be lower key, less commercialised and of shorter duration than in the UK. During our 20 years here, this has changed somewhat. Christmas decorations, toys and boxes of chocolates are creeping into the shops earlier each year. And I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of the 10-metre high Père Noël that appeared outside our local Leclerc supermarket in November. He does have a function, though, more of which below.
1. Christmas crèche
The French are very attached to their crèches. Every church has one, and sometimes you find them in unusual places, like the life-sized one mounted every year in a cave just outside the village of Loze. Some controversy has arisen, however, about putting them in public places, since they are religious symbols that are contrary to France’s lay society.
In Provence, the crèche’s occupants are known as santons. These are painted terracotta figurines representing not only la Sainte Famille but also traditional characters from village life.
2. Père Noël
Hopeful children throughout France have been penning and posting their missives to Père Noël. The gigantic Leclerc Santa presides over a special postbox for these important epistles. I didn’t know until recently that a French law of 1962 decreed that every letter to Père Noël must receive an answer via a postcard. Someone has their work cut out…
3. Christmas markets
Christmas markets originated in 14th-century Alsace. Since then, the tradition has spread throughout France. I don’t remember any in this region when we first moved here in 1997, but nearly every village now holds one. A huge Christmas market takes place in the Place du Capitole in Toulouse every year.
Our village market took place in the huge salle des fêtes a couple of weeks ago and attracted many stallholders and punters.
4. Chants de Noël
The British have imported carol services to France. As far as I can work out, they were not a tradition here previously. They still mostly consist of English carols with a sprinkling of French ones.
However, it seems that chants de Noël in Occitan – the ancient language of much of southwest France – are more of a tradition. The tiny Romanesque church at La Salvetat des Carts, near Najac, has hosted concerts of Occitan carols in previous years.
5. Christmas log
In parts of France, notably the south and Corsica, a bonfire was lit in front of the church on 24th December, fuelled by wood from around the village. This was no doubt a throwback to a much older pagan custom. The villagers took a handful of cinders to add to their own hearth for good luck.
In Corsica, it was customary to add a log to the hearth for every person present at the Christmas meal. If the number of logs was fewer, the people represented by the missing logs would die before the following Christmas. Another custom required a log to be burned for each person absent from the festivities.
6. Midnight Mass
Christmas Eve marks the start of the celebrations. It was formerly a great tradition (if not virtually compulsory) for the French to go to Midnight Mass. French country novels are full of descriptions of families who trudged several kilometres through the snow to their local church.
I have been to Midnight Mass only once, when I was drafted in to swell the ranks of the choir. Not being a Catholic, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do and found it all a bit lengthy. However, the proceedings were considerably brightened by the children’s lack of inhibitions in the nativity play.
7. Christmas meal
In some places, Midnight Mass was preceded by a copious meal and followed by a soupe à l’oignon; in others, the meal came afterwards (le gros souper). Today, French people normally eat their main Christmas meal on Christmas Day. The traditional menu is foie gras, turkey with chestnut stuffing and bûche de Noël (Christmas log), a rich confection of chocolate cake filled with chocolate cream.
8. Les Treize Desserts
In Provence, the main Christmas meal is followed by 13 desserts, symbolising Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. The desserts normally include a combination of fruit, nuts and sweets. Generally, four of the desserts, called mendiants (beggars), are dried figs, hazelnuts or walnuts, almonds and dried grapes. They symbolise four religious orders.
Also included is a cake called Pompe à l’huile, made with orange flower water and olive oil. It is obligatory to taste each dessert in order to enjoy good luck all year round.
The meal is eaten at a table laid with three tablecloths and three candlesticks, representing the Trinity. The ends of the tablecloth are knotted together so that the Devil can’t get under the table.
9. Shoes by the fireplace
French country novels describe how the children left their sabots (wooden clogs) by the fireside and awoke to find small gifts left by Père Noël, such as homemade toys, sweets or an orange.
There is a lovely description in Jean Anglade’s La Soupe à la Fourchette of two children in the Auvergne finding in their sabots wooden toys lovingly crafted by the grandfather – a little wheelbarrow for the girl and a haycart pulled by two cows for the boy.
10. Christmas Greetings
French people wish each other Joyeux Noël or, more commonly, Bonnes Fêtes, accompanied by the usual round of bises (kissing).
They might also add, “…et une bonne fin d’année.” Never, ever should you wish anyone “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before midnight has struck on 31st December. This brings bad luck.
A couple of years ago, I started to wish a French friend Bonnes Fêtes etc and she became quite agitated. She thought I was going to wish her a premature Happy New Year. I wasn’t, since I knew the rules, but she interrupted me before I could finish by saying, “Oui, oui, une bonne fin d’année.”
I would love to hear of any other French Christmas traditions you know about – national or local.
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