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CHRISTMAS

5 things to know about a traditional French Christmas

From florists to oysters, whips to religion, here are five things to know about celebrating a traditional Christmas in France.

5 things to know about a traditional French Christmas
French Christmas always involves seafood. Photo: Stephane du Sakatin/AFP

When

Both December 24th and 25th are important days in France, although only the 25th is a public holiday (and if it falls on a Saturday or Sunday then bad luck, there’s no extra day off work).

The big Christmas seafood feast (more on that below) is traditionally held on the 24th while most families also exchange presents on this day. The 25th usually involves visiting relatives for lunch.

December 26th, known as Boxing Day in the UK, is not a thing in France and if it falls on a weekday then most people will be back at work.

Virtually all shops and many offices are open on the 24th, while the 26th is a normal working day (unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year).

On the 25th most shops close – although boulangeries, patisseries and florists (so you can pick up flowers or a plant for your hostess at lunch) often open in the mornings. In cities, public transport usually runs at least some services, if not a full schedule.

Presents 

Presents are exchanged among friends and families, although the festival is slightly less of a consumerist nirvana than in anglophone countries. Within families present-giving often centres on children, with adults swapping smaller gifts.

Père Noël visits and leaves presents for the well-behaved children – and in certain parts of the country Père Fouettard (Father Flogger) visits naughty children with his whip, which may explain why French children tend to be quite well-behaved. 

Watch out, too, for the Santons de Provence in Christmas markets. These are small hand-painted clay figurines that depict the people of Provence, in traditional costumes and carrying humble offerings, on their way to the Nativity. Sometimes, humorous or topical additions are made – in 2019, one santon-maker added a Yellow Vest protester. They are used to decorate festive cribs at home, or watch over gifts at the foot of the Christmas tree.

Food

Obviously all good festivals centre on food and France has its own traditions.

The big feast in France centres on seafood and families devour huge platters of shellfish including prawns, lobsters, crabs, whelks and – the Christmas king – oysters.

READ ALSO Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

Christmas trees in Strasbourg. Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

Traditionally this meal is eaten on the evening of December 24th or sometimes the early hours of the 25th, after everyone has returned from Midnight Mass.

On the 25th the lunch often involves a roast bird – duck and goose is popular, as is guinea fowl and turkey. This isn’t a strictly observed ritual though, and many families have their own food traditions for this day.

The usual Christmas desert is a Bûche du Noël (Christmas log) which is a chocolate or chestnut roulade with festive decorations. It’s often served with exotic fruits and you will see lots of pineapples and lychées in the shops at this time of year. 

Often served as a starter or canapé over the festive period is foie gras, and it’s usually included in the hampers that older people get from their local mayor.

If you’re in Provence, you will also get to experience the ’12 desserts of Christmas’. 

Religion 

France is famously a secular republic and Christmas is – obviously – a Christian festival, so how to these two things square?

There are some nods to laïcité during the Christmas period – Christmas cribs are not allowed in public buildings such as town halls, and if your kids are in a French school you won’t be forced to go and watch them put on a nativity play – but in general it’s just celebrated as a festival that everyone enjoys.

READ ALSO What exactly does laïcité (secularism) mean in France?

So mayors erect Christmas trees (apart from some refusenik Green officials), mairies sport non-religious decorations including festive lights and politicians wish all their constituents a very happy Christmas. 

Afterwards

Once Christmas itself is over there is still New Year to look forward to. Although this isn’t such a wild party/drinking session as in some countries it is still celebrated and usually most towns put on a spectacular firework display as the clock strikes midnight – although the city of Paris has cancelled its display this year due to Covid fears.

READ ALSO The health rules and official advice for Christmas and New Year in France 

And once that is over there’s still one thing to look forward to – Epiphany on January 6th which involves a special cake with a crown.

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FOOD & DRINK

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Beaujolais Nouveau wine suffers from a number of negative stereotypes - but are these rumours more fiction than fact?

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Each year – on the third Thursday of November – people across the world celebrate one thing, and it is not Thanksgiving. It is the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a French wine coming from the east of France, south of the wine growing region of Burgundy.

The release of the Beaujolais Nouveau vintage brings with it lots of celebration – four days of it in the Beaujolais region itself. The vintage is then shipped far and wide for people to consume, more often than not at a very affordable price of just a few euros. 

READ MORE: Beaujolais Nouveau: 13 things you need to know about France’s famous wine

Unfortunately, however, the light, red wine also has suffered from a negative reputation. Critics (or perhaps just those who have drunk too many glasses) say it gives you a hangover, tastes terrible (apparently similar to bananas to some), and above all that it is low-quality.

But to Rod Phillips, wine expert and author of “French Wine: A History”, Beaujolais Nouveau is “young, fruity, bright, cheerful.” 

Phillips went on to say that it is “not a wine to discuss or contemplate,” but “that doesn’t make it bad wine. It’s different from structured, more subtle and nuanced wines.”

For Caroline Conner, sommelier and head of Lyon Wine Tastings, Beaujolais Nouveau is “really fun” and highly encourages people to give the wine a chance, particularly from local producers. 

You can hear Caroline Conner discuss Beaujolais Nouveau in the new episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen below.

Conner explained the stories of Beaujolais Nouveau wine causing hangovers has nothing to do with the way the wine is made, or even how quickly it is produced –  using grapes that were harvested just a few months before being bottled. 

“It’s not about the technique, it’s because most of it is mass produced. Any mass produced wine is probably going to give you a hangover,” the sommelier explained. 

Of course hangovers also depend on how much you drink – of any wine.

According to Rod Phillips, the stereotype that Beaujolais wine is of poor quality stretches back hundreds of years.

“The region had a setback in the Middle Ages and took a long time to recover,” explained Phillips.

In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy issued an edict – grapes from the Gamay vine were “injurious to the human creature” and wine that came from them had “terrible bitterness.” He is even thought to have said that the vine itself was an “evil and disloyal plant.”

According to Phillips, this decree was in the Duke’s interest: “He was protecting pinot noir, which was used for Burgundy’s already-famous wines.

More and more producers were growing Gamay because it had a higher yield, so made more and cheaper wine. They appealed to the Duke to ban Gamay and he obliged in terms that produced an enduring belief that Gamay was an inferior wine.”

This impacted Beaujolais wine because it is produced from that same “disloyal plant” – the Gamay grape. It was not until after the second World War that Beaujolais red wine grew in popularity outside of eastern France.

In the 1970s and 80s, the wine had a surge in popularity, with the start of the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon, and the mass production of the wine to be cheaply sent across the world. 

Conner described Beaujolais Nouveau as a “big party” at that time, with celebrations from London to Japan. While it has decreased in popularity in recent years, the third Thursday of November remains an important date in the French calendar.

What about the other Beaujolais wines?

Both wine experts also pointed to the fact that Beaujolais Nouveau is not the only wine to come out of the region. 

“There are a lots of different tiers of quality,” said Conner, adding that the Nouveau only accounts for about 20 percent of production. “The rest of Beaujolais wine is quite different.”

Phillips echoed these sentiments, noting an improvement in quality for other “Beaujolais Crus.”

“More recently people have discovered the 10 Beaujolais Crus (Morgon, Chénas, Brouilly, etc.) which are a real step up in quality,” he said. “There’s a sense in which Beaujolais Nouveau was a drag on the high quality wines of the region because it was associated with inexpensive, easy-drinking wines.”

And as for Beaujolais Nouveau itself, “it’s not all cheap and mass produced,” according to Conner.

If you really want to enjoy a good Beaujolais Nouveau, the sommelier recommends going “to a good caviste or a good restaurant” and drinking wine that was made by a “small producer.”

How much should you spend to get a really good bottle? Conner suggests 20 euros believing you’ll get far more value for money if you spend that amount on a Beaujolais rather than a Burgundy – which you pay a premium on because of its famous name

“You’ll find some excellent value,” she promised.

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