France, Christmas in

France, Christmas in

The story of the Christ child's birth, as represented in Nativity scenes, retold in folk plays, and commemorated in religious services plays a large role in French Christmas celebrations. As one might expect, so, too, does fine food.

St. Nicholas's Day

French children eagerly await St. Nicholas's Day, December 6. In honor of the generous saint, adults often give children gifts of candy and other treats. Since St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Lorraine, the people of that province celebrate his feast day with processions. These processions include men dressed as the saint in long robes, bishop's hats, and crosses. Père Fouttard, or "Father Whipper," usually follows behind Nicholas. The children recognize Père Fouttard by his dirty, dark robe, greasy, grey beard, and whip. While St. Nicholas rewards children who have been good, Père Fouttard punishes children who have misbehaved (see also Black Peter; Knecht Ruprecht).

Père Noël

In France children receive their Christmas gifts from Père Noël, or "Father Christmas." French folklore depicts Père Noël as a solemn old man with a white beard. He wears a long, hooded, red robe trimmed with white fur. He resembles England's Father Christmas and Germany's Weihnachtsmann. In the weeks before Christmas many French children write letters to Père Noël describing the gifts they would like to receive (see also Children's Letters). They mail these letters to the North Pole.


As Christmas day draws near, many people give their homes a thorough cleaning. Silver may be polished and fine china brought out of storage for the sumptuous Christmas Eve feast called réveillon. Families shop for Christmas trees and flowers to decorate the table. The French put all kinds of flowers to this purpose, including poinsettias, but a special favorite is the Christmas rose. The French also enjoy decorating their homes with mistletoe. Another shopping trip may be made to pick up a new figurine for their Nativity scene, which the French call a crèche, meaning "crib." Shops and markets throughout France display a wide variety of these engaging, lifelike figures in the weeks preceding Christmas. As a special Christmas treat the family may go to see a Nativity play. All over France local theatrical groups present these plays, which retell French Nativity legends. The French call these pastoral tales pastorales (see also Pastores, Los).

Most French families decorate their Christmas trees a few days before Christmas. French Christmas ornaments come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The fish, once a new year's symbol signifying long life, has become a popular shape for tree ornaments. Although Christmas trees have become popular, the Nativity scene remains the most important Christmas decoration in France. Churches throughout France display Nativity scenes in the weeks before Christmas. French families begin to assemble their Nativity scenes a few days before Christmas. Children especially enjoy this task and may bring home twigs, moss, and rocks to make the setting look more lifelike. Each day the figurines representing the Three Kings move closer to the stable where the Holy Family has taken shelter (see Magi). In past times Yule logs were popular throughout France. Nowadays the Yule log survives in the form of a popular Christmas dessert called a bûche de Noël, or "Christmas log." Bakers mold this cremefilled cake into the shape of log.

Christmas Eve

Many French families serve a light snack at dinner time on Christmas Eve. This tides the family over until the more formal meal, which they call réveillon, meaning "awakening." This meal will not take place until the middle of the night. Family members pass the evening together singing Christmas carols and telling Christmas stories. In addition, the women of the household may spend many hours in the kitchen preparing the Christmas Eve feast. Children place their shoes near the fireplace, underneath the Christmas tree, or near the Nativity scene. In the middle of the night the magical Père Noël will come and fill them with sweets and toys. Late in the evening someone, often the youngest child, completes the Nativity scene by placing the baby Jesus figurine into the manger. As midnight approaches small children are tucked into bed and the rest of the family prepares to go to Midnight Mass.

After returning from church French families finally sit down to their Christmas Eve banquet. This meal may consist of up to fifteen courses. After passing several hours dining together the family settles down to watch the children open Christmas presents. Families with small children may wait until Christmas morning to open presents, however. As a rule, only children receive presents on Christmas. Adults exchange gifts with one another on New Year's Day.

Regional Customs

Located in southern France, the region of Provence boasts a number of distinctive Christmas customs. The region is well known for its santons, Nativity scene figurines. In Provence santon makers have sold their wares at Christmas fairs since the early nineteenth century. For generations these artisans have trained their children in the traditional techniques for making the clay figurines. A number of Provençal villages sponsor living Nativity scenes and costumed processions of shepherds, angels, kings, and pilgrims on Christmas Eve. These candlelight processions begin about an hour before midnight and wend their way to the local church, where participants pay their respects to the Holy Family and attend Midnight Mass.

Christmas cuisine also varies across France. Families in Provence often serve lobster as a first course for réveillon. Roast pheasant or roast lamb often follow. Bread, cheese, green salad, pâté, and wine round out the meal. Provençal custom suggests that hostesses serve thirteen desserts for réveillon, one for Jesus and each of the twelve apostles. Some combination of fresh, glazed, and dried fruit, marzipan, candies, and cakes are usually served. In the snowy French Alps a simpler réveillon meal may be offered, featuring such sturdy dishes as hot broth with noodles and boiled beef. In Brittany, on France's northern coast, buckwheat crepes are served with heavy cream.

New Year and Epiphany

Adults exchange gifts on New Year's Day. The French word for new year's gift, étrenne, comes from the Latin word strenae, which also means "new year's gift." The ancient Romans offered these gifts to one another at their new year festival, Kalends. The Christmas season in France closes on January 6 with Fête des Rois, Three King's Day, or Epiphany.

Further Reading

Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Ross, Corinne. Christmas in France. Chicago: World Book, 1988.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture and Canadian Heritage:
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
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