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The traditions that make a French Christmas

The Local · 21 Dec 2015, 08:41

Published: 21 Dec 2015 08:41 GMT+01:00
Updated: 21 Dec 2015 08:41 GMT+01:00

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Flexible Christmas Day

Photo: Mike_fleming/Flickr

Obviously the French don't actually move Christmas Day around, but they are more flexible when it comes to giving presents. In the north of the country, gifts are offered to children on December 6th, the feast of St Nicolas. Many families prefer to exchange presents on Christmas Eve and others, who must have impressive willpower, do the giving and receiving on January 6th, the Feast of the Kings.

Postcards from Père Noël

Photo: Mehdi Fedouach/AFP

Letters from French kids to Father Christmas don't just disappear into dustbins or drawers in France. Since 1962, France has had a law that stipulates any letter to Santa must be responded to in the form of a postcard. The law has no doubt helped boost the myth of Santa Claus among France's children, although it's doubtful the postmen appreciate all the extra work.

Crèche Crazy

Photo: Taliesin/Flickr

The traditional nativity crib is a common sight in households across the world at Christmas, but the French take the crèche to a whole new level. It's not just the usual characters like Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph who make an appearance in the French crib, but all kinds of figures, (known as santons), including vegetable sellers, bakers, men selling roasted chestnuts, local dignitaries... in fact, anyone you can think of.

Father slapper

Photo: Wikicommons

This character has a few different incarnations in countries around Europe, but in France, at least in the north and east of the country, he is known as Père Fouettard. Although social services would be on the lookout for Père Fouettard today, back in the day the Whipping Father, or Slapping Santa as he was known, would accompany St. Nicholas and was said to bring a whip with him to spank any naughty kids.

Clogs by the Fire

Photo: dmertl/Flickr

Where as youngsters in Anglo countries hang Christmas stockings by the fireplace for Santa, in France, children leave out their shoes, hoping Père Nöel will fill them to the brim with little presents, sweets, fruit, nuts and anything else that will fit. Children with smaller feet must feel a bit short-changed.

Quality not Quantity

Photo: trocadero_dalbera/Flickr

More habit than tradition, but when it comes to Christmas shopping the French don't go as bananas as their British and American counterparts. In France the motto is "quality not quantity" and people will shop in the traditional Christmas markets as much as in the deluxe stores, although some doubt the quality on offer at the markets these days. There are no Boxing Day sales either, unlike in Britain. That madness is deferred until the New Year. Having said all that, the sight of shoppers laden with bags is becoming more common, so the trend for Christmas shopping sprees may be catching on.

La Messe de Minuit

Photo: Yann Caradec/Flickr

France might officially be a secular country, but the tradition of midnight mass lives on. And it's no surprise, given the array of stunning cathedrals across the country which are often packed to the rafters for a midnight mass, where traditional Christmas carols and hymns are sung to get everyone in the festive mood, and also to work up an appetite. (See next).

Christmas Eve Feast

Photo: Wikicommons

Story continues below…

Otherwise known as Le Reveillon, the big Christmas meal in French families will often take place late on Christmas Eve or even in the early hours of Christmas morning after midnight mass. The menu for the feast will vary depending on the region but turkey stuffed with chestnuts is a regular on tables, as well as goose, oysters and foie gras.

The Burning of the Yule Log

Photo: Rod Troch/Flickr

This custom is observed mainly in the south of France, where families burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day. In the old days, the tradition was that part of the log be used to make the wedge for a family's plough, in order to bring good luck for the coming harvest. The custom these days, however, is more likely to see families tuck in to a chocolate version of the Yule Log rather than the wooden one.

Galette of Kings

Photo: Mover el Bigote/Flickr

The French mark the 12th day Christmas or the feast of Epiphany, by scoffing down one final pastry - known as the galette des rois or "cake of kings". Inside the cake is hidden a charm known as a fève. Whoever finds it in their portion is a king or queen and wins the right to wear the crown and choose their partner. This ritual may sound daft, but it's still taken very seriously.


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