How Do The French Celebrate Christmas
The history of Christmas in France has been a sometimes controversial one. With the French Revolution (1789 - 1799), Republicans imposed a ban on all religious festivals, including Christmas, and even introduced their own secular calendar. For many children the idea of Christmas being cancelled is a nightmare, but it was reinstated after the Revolution. Nowadays, Christmas in France is a mixture of the secular and religious. Many still observe Catholic practices, while others are more interested in having a party and eating. oneHOWTO investigates how do the French celebrate Christmas to show that it is every bit as festive and fun as other parts of Europe.
Religious Christmas celebration in France
The Catholic church in France is considered to be 'the church's eldest daughter', meaning it is one of the longest serving Catholic communities outside of Italy. Despite the secularism of France today (known as laïcité), Christmas is still observed by many Catholics in France. On Christmas Eve, many citizens of France and tourists will go to the many churches which open their doors for Christmas carols and communion. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is very popular, especially in major cities such as Paris.
However, the Christmas season in France isn't limited to this one evening. It really starts for the French on the 6th December, known as St. Nicholas Day. If this saint sounds familiar, you might know him as the inspiration for one of his other names; St. Nick, Father Christmas or Santa Claus. St. Nicholas is the basis for Santa Claus as he was known for his secret gift-giving. This is why, in France, many families will exchange their presents on this day and not later on the 24th or 25th December. This is particularly the case in the regions of Alsace and Lorraine. In villages and cities in these regions, they usually have a parade with floats and fireworks.
Like other Christmas traditions around the world, Advent is observed and is known as L'Avent. This is a period which starts 4 Sundays before Christmas and has its roots in religious tradition. It is a time of anticipation, not just for children excited about getting their presents. The time passing is depicted by either an advent calendar or by lighting the advent candles in church. Traditional religious Christmas advent calendars would have a religious image relating to the nativity behind each little cardboard door. Now, you are more likely to find a delicious piece of chocolate waiting for you.
The nativity is a big deal in France around Christmas time. In many countries, nativity scenes are common among religious festive celebrations. However, in France, they are a tradition which is deeply related to the Provençal lifestyle. This is the region in Southwest France with its capital of Marseille. Nativity scenes don't just have the main players in the Biblical nativity scene, they also have bakers, butchers, washerwomen, etc. These figures, known as Santons or 'little saints', are usually made of terracotta and hand-painted. They are sold all over France and creating more and more elaborate scenes has become customary.
French food and drink at Christmas
Whether or not you are religiously observant at Christmas time in France, it is more common to celebrate on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. Actually, this isn't strictly true, as the real festivities begin after Midnight Mass for those who attend. This means eating, drinking and revelling until the wee hours. Thankfully, the 25th of December is a public holiday in France.
This Christmas Eve feast is known as Rèveillon. It is held in most French speaking parts of the world and is a feast where celebrants will enjoy many of the festive and traditional cuisines which have become synonymous with France. While this may include a turkey with all the trimmings, there is just as likely to be duck, goose, foie gras, escargots (snails), lobster and all that tasty goodness.
And these are just the savory courses. In Provence in particular, the desserts come at the end and are known as the 'thirteen desserts' because, you guessed it, there are thirteen of them. These include dried fruit and nuts, but also the decadent chocolate Yule log. Of course, this feast, for those inclined, will also have Champagne and wine as France is well known for their quality of grape and technique.
Decorations and Gift Giving
Buying gifts for loved ones is important to the French at Christmas time, but they are known more for 'quality than quantity'. Gifts are to be thoughtful and not as commericalized as other Christmas traditions around the world. However, the wheels of capitalism keep spinning and it is becoming more and more popular to get extravagant gifts at Christmas in France. The way they celebrate Christmas in France is more and more akin to how it is in the rest of Europe.
If this is the case, then you will find many Christmas markets all over France selling traditional gifts, handmade toys, sweet festive treats, as well as lots of mulled wine to sup while you browse the stalls.
There may be Christmas trees and ornaments on sale. However, it is not as traditional during Christmas in France to decorate your house as it is in many other European countries. Most towns and cities, however, will invest in a communal Christmas tree known as the sapin de Noël. This is an Alsatian tradition which moved its way towards larger French culture over the last 500 years or so. It was originally decorated with red apples which is why you often see red baubles decorating Christmas trees.
Santa Claus in France
They celebrate Christmas in France with one of the most iconic Christmas symbols. Santa Claus started his tradition as St. Nicholas, but he is more commonly known as Père Noël, French for 'Father Christmas'. He acts in much the same way as Santa Claus does in other worldwide Christmas traditions. However, there are some aspects which are particularly French.
While the story of depositing presents for children down the chimney remains, except he isn't pulled by reindeer, but a magical flying donkey. The reindeer are an American elaboration, but you may see it more commonly now in France than before. Perhaps reindeer are more glamorous.
Letter writing to Santa is a classic Christmas tradition, but it is a pretty big deal in France. Children write letters requesting gifts and staking their claims about how they have been good in the preceding year. There is actually a law which states that every letter received by Santa (or the French postal service) will have a reply in the form of a Christmas postcard.
With all the sweet comes the sour. One interesting French Christmas tradition is to have Père Fouettard, otherwise known as 'Father Whipper' or 'Father Slapper'. As St. Nick goes around handing out presents to the children who have been 'good' this year, Father Whipper is there to administer punishment to the children who have been 'bad'. He is often tugged along by Santa Claus by a chain and is dressed in black rags, with a scraggly beard and soot over his face. The origin of the story of Père Fouettard is a pretty gruesome one, with some stories claiming he is joined by St. Nick as a punishment for killing, stewing and eating children. Either way, he's the dark spirit of Christmas and isn't as common as he used to be in France.
Christmas around the World
Now you know how do they celebrate Christmas in France, you will many similarities among the differences. Essentially, the tenets of gift giving, celebration and community are ones which are found in most festivities around the world.
However, every country has its own peculiarities and traditions even though there are many that celebrate Christmas. This is why at oneHOWTO has articles on these different ways Christmas is celebrated around the world:
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