For people in north-east France, Monday, December 6th marks Saint Nicolas Day – with family celebrations and lots of gingerbread.
The reason the festival is only really celebrated in one corner of France is connected to the history of Alsace-Lorraine, which passed between French and German hands several times in the nineteenth century, leaving the inhabitants with a lot of German influences on language, cuisine and festivals.
Decorated pain d’épices (gingerbread) is an important part of the festival. Photo: AFP
The north east of France is generally known as the ‘Christmas centre’ echoing many of the traditions of a German Christmas while Strasbourg, which hosts a huge Christmas market, bills itself as the ‘Christmas capital of France’.
And the celebration of Saint Nicolas is the mark of another German influence as the festival – known over the border as Nikolaustag – is a big deal in Germany.
Saint Nicolas is said to have saved three children who were kidnapped by a butcher, and is therefore the patron saint of children. He is a different figure to Father Christmas (Père Noël), although some of some of his traditions are similar.
Père Fouettard brings a whip to naughty children, while well-behaved ones get sweets. Photo: AFP
In France it’s a bit more low key, but still an important tradition to the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine.
French language expert and founder of French today Camille Chevalier-Karfis, whose family is originally from Alsace-Lorraine, said: “It’s an important festival in the Christian calendar but it’s also important to families who grew up in that area, my mother always liked to have us all visiting for Saint Nicolas.
“He is the patron saint of children and traditionally on December 6th he brings little gifts – sweets, dried fruits, chocolate or gingerbread – for children. But – crucially – only well-behaved children, naughty children get a visit from Père Fouettard who brings a whip for bad kids.
“Traditionally Père Fouettard had black servants but that doesn’t really happen any more.
“For some strict Catholic families in that area, Christmas is celebrated purely as a religious event and so Saint Nicolas is the time for visiting family, having a nice dinner together and giving little gifts.”
Many places also have parades or festivals of Saint Nicolas, while shops in Alsace-Lorraine sell the region’s famous decorated gingerbread.
Camille added: “Celebrating Saint Nicolas as well as Christmas is actually quite practical – if my whole family are together for Saint Nicolas then we can visit in-laws or other family members at Christmas.”
Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com.