"So this is Christmas, for weak and for strong. The rich and the poor ones, the war is so long... A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear." These well-known lyrics from John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1971 Christmas song ring true once again. We're fighting a different battle now for sure, but it's a battle nevertheless. And though much has been cancelled throughout 2020 and this holiday season because of Covid-19, Christmas has not been cancelled. We may have to celebrate in different places, different ways and break with some traditions this year to keep healthy and safe, but we can still celebrate Christmas in ways that promise yuletide cheer, laughter, and time well spent with loved ones both near and far.
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Christmas is still a magical time of twinkling lights and tinsel trees, swans a-swimming and geese a-laying. A time to splurge on fine wines and feasts with friends and family, even if it's virtually. It’s also a time of year steeped in traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation – holiday traditions that bring back childhood memories of popcorn strands, paper chains, colored lights, and a shiny tin foil star atop the tree.
Just as Santa takes on many shapes, many sizes, Christmas traditions do also — varying from family to family and country to country. You won’t find an “elf on the shelf” hiding masks or wreaking havoc on our household, and our stockings are still hung by the fire. But with our own jolly French elf… uh, I mean chef… in the family, we do indulge in a little more food and fun. From foie gras and the bûche de Noël to French santons and the nativity scene, our Southern family has added some à la française to our pa-rum pum-pum-pum.
With only five days left until Christmas, I’m sharing five Gallic traditions that will have you and yours dreaming of a French Christmas along with the return of heartwarming holiday gatherings in the future. Try a few!
Postcards from Père Noël
Each year in late November, children around the world begin sending their Christmas wish lists to Père Noël by way of a postal office in the small French village of Libourne. About 60 volunteer La Poste “elves” sort through and reply to every letter – over 1 million from 140 different countries. Santa’s first official response was in 1962 when Le Sécretariat du Père Noël was started by the Ministère des Postes et des Télégraphes. For more than 50 years, letters addressed to “Père Noël, France” have been answered. Postal officials say this French station probably gets more letters than any other country because it’s the oldest of its kind. The operation costs an estimated $1.4 million each year.
Shoes by the Fire
French children don’t hang stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve. Instead, they leave their shoes or slippers by the fireplace, filled with hay and carrots for Père Noël’s donkey to eat. Père Noël takes the hay and carrots and refills the shoes with small presents, candies, fruits and nuts for children to find Christmas morning.
During Christmastime in France, festive sprigs of mistletoe (le gui) are often seen hanging above doors, inviting anyone passing beneath to share a kiss as a promise of good luck throughout the coming year (and we all could use good luck in 2021). A kiss between a couple in love hints at marriage and a prediction of happiness and a long life. Although originally reserved for New Year's Day, now kisses can be exchanged under the mistletoe at any time during the holiday season!
Bûche de Noël
Bûche de Noël is the traditional French dessert served after le réveillon de Noël or Christmas Eve Dinner. Bûche de Noël, which literally means Christmas log, is a sponge cake and buttercream roulade that resembles a Yule log. The chocolate frosting is textured like bark and the cake is typically decorated with cocoa dirt, confectioner's sugar snow, meringue mushrooms, and marzipan holly and berries, depicting a winter woodland scene.
55 French Santons
La crèche de Noël (the nativity scene) is very popular in France. It’s usually displayed from the first Sunday of Advent until February 2nd, the date of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, known as la Chandeleur (Crêpe Day). During the French Revolution, public nativity scenes were prohibited so small figurines called santons (little saints) were created in Provence for display in the home. The Provençal crèche includes the Holy Family, shepherds, animals, angels and Three Wise Men, as well as bouchers (butchers) boulangers (bakers) and various other village people – for a total of 55 characters – all waiting to welcome Baby Jesus, who isn’t added until midnight on Christmas Eve.
The countdown is on! As you finish decking the halls, wrapping the gifts and making the menu, there’s still time to add some French cheer to your home this year. Read about more French Christmas traditions here and let us know if your holiday plans include any Francophile festivities. But wherever you are and however you’re celebrating… please stay safe and healthy!
When this self-described Francophile is not reading or writing about all things French, she's dreaming up charming new ways to showcase Lolo French Antiques et More or traveling to France with Lolo to buy delightful treasures for their store. Mimi, Lolo, and their new French Bulldog, Duke, live in Birmingham, AL.