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Credited to Louise Marsh

~~~ 12 Ways of Christmas ~~~ – France

The 2nd Way of Christmas

For our 2nd Christmas destination we hop over the channel to France, another country I have an infinity with. Last year I was lucky enough to spend the year in the sunny south of France and I have to say, the Europeans know how to do Christmas markets! In the city I lived, Montpellier, the Christmas decorations, markets and festivities were such a joy to experience and they offered a great platform for the local people to sell their traditional crafts and cuisine. Although there is an element of that in Britain, we still import a lot of inspiration from our European neighbours. But more on the markets later!


The first main big difference between the UK and France on Christmas is that they don’t celebrate the traditionally English day of Boxing Day, which can be quite bemusing to us. However, they’re not missing out on the Christmas hangover of the 26th, in fact Christmas in France is a lot more flexible and can extend over two weeks before and after the main event. For example, the Feast of Saint Nicholas is a big deal in France, held on the 6th of December, and, like many other European countries, this is the day most of the festivities are held on, sometimes people even exchange their presents on this day. Alternatively, other people prefer to wait until Christmas Eve to celebrate, but not a lot actually happens on Christmas day itself. Some people even hold out until the 6th of January to exchange gifts on the day of the Feast of the Kings, although this is less common today.

Although we don’t share Boxing Day with France there is a bit of festive magic we do share with them: writing Letters to Santa Clause! Do you remember the excitement we had as a kid when we sat down and wrote out a big list of all the things we hoped Santa would bring to us, did you ever get a reply? Probably not because the tradition’s a little different here. In the UK the tradition is to burn the letters on the fire which magically transports the messages up the chimney (a reliable courier service for sure), perhaps some of you did this as kids? The way children do it in France is by actual courier service! In 1962 the French government passed a law that stated all mail addressed to Père Noël [1] would be replied to by postcard. So, they set up special Santa post-boxes and organised extra staff and volunteers during the festive season to send out replies to all the children at Christmas time. [2] How cool is that!


And it’s not just Santa letters the French take to the next level, you should check out their nativity civilisations. Not only do they sell and display the classic figures of a Christmas nativity set like the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph etc.… They expand their nativities to all corners of society, including bakers, artisans, traders – it really does become a nativity city!

Another quirky little difference is the Christmas Eve Santa offering ritual. Instead of putting stockings by the fireplace French children put their shoes there instead hoping they get filled with goodies, traditionally this was clogs, but now I’m assuming any shoe goes. I don’t know about you but I’d definitely be putting the biggest Wellington boot I could find by the fire! And forget about the mince pies and carrots, this is just a waste of food and health risk for our beloved Père Noël.

Now to the main event: the great Christmas feast, which in France is called ‘Le reveillon’. Whereas our Christmas feast traditionally takes place on Christmas Day, French families have theirs on Christmas Eve or sometimes in the early hours of Christmas morning after midnight mass (seems strange to eat a big Christmas dinner at around 2am in the morning – but then again, the amount of times I’ve stumbled home drunk at 2am and have wanted nothing more than a massive feast to come home to makes me think that maybe the French are onto something… I mean, those midnight masses can get you pretty messy with all that wine!) The cuisine of Le Reveillon will vary depending on independent family traditions and regional traditions, but typically you can expect a goose or two, a turkey stuffed with roasted chestnuts, and luxuries such as foie gras or even Oysters which are very common in the south of France.

With the best and most brilliantly French tradition saved till last I present to you the 12th day of Christmas [3] tradition: The Galette des Rois! Can you guess what this might be? What stereotypically French cuisine haven’t we mentioned yet? Yep, that’s right, it’s a pastry! The best translation for this is the ‘cake of kings’ which is a yummy pastry cake filled with frangipane (a sweet almond cream). But what’s special about this cake is that it’s also a game! Similar to the almond in the rice pudding Danish tradition we discovered in my last article, the French hide a small lucky charm, which in French is called ‘le fève’, in the cake and whoever is the lucky finder of this charm earns the right to wear the crown, pronounce themselves King or Queen and choose a partner to rule by their side (and hope their people don’t revolt against them).


So, this concludes our stop in France. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have learning about how our neighbours across the channel celebrate the festive season! Join me tomorrow for another Christmas adventure!


[1] The French vocabulary for Father Christmas

[2] In Northern France and Belgium the same service is provided but most of the children address their letters to Saint Nicholas instead, who essentially stands for the same thing but has a more prominent grounding in religion and the old Gaelic/pagan traditions of France.

[3] Also known as the ‘Day of Epiphany’ or aforementioned ‘The Day of the Feast of the Kings’ which takes place on the 6th of January

About Louise Marsh


One comment

  1. lawrenceh-s@hotmail.co.uk'

    Loved this! Your love of France makes me want to visit again and see more and more of it!

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