If you are going to be spending your first Christmas in France, what can you expect?
Essentially Christmas is a time for families in France; a time when the family gathers together and exchanges gifts.
Depending on the region of France celebrations can vary, eastern and northern France begin their season on 6 December with la fête de Saint Nicolas. In Lyon the Lyonnais put candles in their windows to light up the towns and villages for la fête de lumières on 8 December; when they pay hommage to the Virgin Mary.
Instead of Christmas Stockings French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, hoping that Père Noël will fill them with gifts, sweets, fruit and nuts; small toys will also be hung on the tree. What they are not hoping for is Père Fouettard who gives spanking to bad children!
Food glorious food
The number of people attend la Messe de Minuit is diminishing but for many families it still plays an important part in celebrating Christmas. It is followed by le Réveillon from the verb réveiller to wake up or to revive. This huge feast is symbolic in awakening the meaning of Christ's birth and is seen as the culinary highlight of the whole season. It can be enjoyed at home or in a restaurant that stays open all night.
Each region will have its own traditional Christmas menu like turkey, capon, goose, chicken or boudin blanc (similar to white pudding.)
Then there are the desserts! La bûche de Noël or Yule log goes back to pagan times. The cake is log shaped and made from chocolate and chestnuts. It represents the log that would be lit on Christmas Eve and burn through to New Year's day. In southern France a Christmas loaf, le Pain Calendeau, is traditionally shared with a poor person.
Deck the halls!
In homes, streets, shops, offices and factories the sapin de Noël takes pride of place. It first appeared in Alsace in the 14th century and was decorated with apples, paper flowers and ribbons before being introduced throughout the rest of France around 1837.
Churches and some home display les crèches, filled with santons (little saints). In some areas you will see une crèche vivant, a play or performance based on the Nativity.
To bring the home good fortune throughout the year mistletoe is hung above the door.
In case the Virgin Mary should pass by it is customary to leave a candle burning after Réveillon.
La Galette des Rois is eaten at Epiphany. Normally Epiphany is celebrated on 6th January but other areas celebrate on the first Sunday after 1st January. The round cake is cut into pieces and distributed by a child known as le petit roi or l'enfant soleil, who could be hiding under the table! Whoever finds la fève, a charm hidden inside the cake, will be crowned King or Queen and can choose a partner.
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