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Christmas In France

Say Merry Christmas in France

 French - Joyeux Noël

Breton - Nedeleg Laouen

Corsican - Bon Natale

Nearly every French home at Christmastime displays a Nativity scene or creche, which serves as the focus for the Christmas celebration. The creche is often peopled with little clay figures called santons or "little saints." An extensive tradition has evolved around these little figures which are made by craftsmen in the south of France throughout the year. In addition to the usual Holy Family, shepherds, and Magi, the craftsmen also produce figures in the form of local dignitaries and characters. The craftsmanship involved in creating the gaily colored santons is quite astounding and the molds have been passed from generation to generation since the seventeenth century. Throughout December the figures are sold at annual Christmas fairs in Marseille and Aix.


The Christmas tree has never been particularly popular in France, and though the use of the Yule log has faded, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Nol, which means "Christmas Log." The cake, among other food in great abundance is served at the grand feast of the season, which is called le rveillon. Le rveillon is a very late supper held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The menu for the meal varies according to regional culinary tradition. In Alsace, goose is the main course, in Burgundy it is turkey with chestnuts, and the Parisians feast upon oysters and pat de foie gras.


French children receive gifts from Pere Noel who travels with his stern disciplinarian companion Pre Fouettard. Pre Fouettard reminds Pere Noel of just how each child has behaved during the past year. In some parts of France Pere Noel brings small gifts on St. Nicholas Eve (December 6) and visits again on Christmas. In other places it is le petit Jsus who brings the gifts. Generally adults wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts.


Test how much you already know about French Christmas with our little trivia quiz and then jump down to see if you were right!




1) Which French city is known as the country’s Christmas Capital?


2) What’s the deal with “nowell”?


3) Why do we kiss under a gui, or mistletoe?


4) What do (French) children do on Christmas Eve?


5) What is a bûche? (And we’re not talking about the dessert!)






1) Strasbourg, Alsace: French Christmas Capital

The earliest record of a decorated Christmas tree dates to the city of Strasbourg in the Alsace region in 1604, which was part of Germany in the Holy Roman Empire at the time. Official origins of the tree are vague – with references to religious plays called mysteries and the relevant symbolism of everlasting life associated with the evergreen – but the Christmas tree tradition as we know it today nevertheless remains attached to Strasbourg and its Germanic roots, which are celebrated in style every year with the largest marché de noël in the country.


2) Nowell

The word comes from Old French, by way of the Latin natalem, meaning “birthday” and refers to the birth of Christ. Now spelled Noël, it refers to Christmas in all its meanings.


3) Gui, the plant

The term gui in Celtic and Gallic means “healer of everything.” In ancient times, people would pick the parasitic plant and give it to their loved ones to wish them health and prosperity. Later, they started hanging bunches of gui above their doors to ward off evil spirits. When guests arrived, they would kiss at the door, now adorned by a cluster of gui. If you find yourself under the berry-studded plant, it’s expected to kiss in the spirit of wishing each other happiness and well-being. Of course, today the tradition has also taken on more romantic nuances!


4) Gui, the donkey

In France, custom calls for children to leave their shoes out and filled with carrots for Papa Noël’s donkey, Gui. In return, Papa Noël fills the shoes with small treats and toys. Originally, Gui was fed from wooden peasant shoes, called sabots. Today, decorative sabots are sometimes still laid out, but modern shoes may be used as well. The memory of sabots remains, however, with pastry shops making chocolate sabots  and filling them with candy to be given as gifts or treats.


5) Bûche: Yule Log

The bûche originally was a log, preferably taken from the hard wood of a fruit tree, that had been blessed with water, salt, and sometimes wine before being put in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. The log was also sprinkled with parts of the log from the previous year to symbolized the renewal of time. The log was placed and lit after midnight mass to offer light and warmth and it was said that if the log burnt for at least three days, the family and house would prosper during the upcoming year.


Today, with most homes lacking a fireplace, the tradition of the bûche continues. Like the sabots, the memory has been reinterpreted in pastry form. The standard bûche de noël is a sponge cake, rolled with buttercream into the form of a log and often decorated with cheery winter themes. (OK, so maybe we were talking about the desert!)



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