The Christmas season in France begins on December 6 with St. Nicholas Day and continues through January 6 or Epiphany. In eastern France children receive gifts of candy, fruit, and small toys from the good saint. Some of these children hit the jackpot receiving gifts on both St. Nicholas Day and Christmas day. For the religious people in France the Christmas season begins on the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas.
Houses are given a thorough cleaning. Floors are swept. Furniture is dusted and waxed. The silver is polished to a bright sheen, and the finest china is brought out to grace the Christmas board. After that the house is filled with the glorious sounds and aromas of Christmas cooking and baking.
In nearly every house a manger scene is lovingly brought out of storage and given a place of prominence in the living room. The manger scene first appeared in Avignon between 1316 and 1334 B.C. but did not become popular until the 16th century. Legend says that ancestors of St. Francis of Assisi brought the tradition with them to France. Many families have figures that have been handed down from generation to generation and may be a hundred years old or more. These scenes may be simple scenes with just the holy family, shepherds, wise men, and a few animals; or they may be very elaborate forming a complete village with many figures called santons, little saints, representing Bible characters and villagers seen in everyday life, such as a mayor, priest, policeman, butcher, and baker. Many families purchase new santons to add to their nativity scene every year at a local store or outdoor Christmas market. Even children get involved gathering moss, stones, and twigs to be included in the scenery.
At midnight Christmas Eve adults and older children attend midnight masses at beautifully decorated churches and cathedrals where joyful choirs and peeling bells welcome Christmas Day. Younger children, instead of attending mass, are sleeping dreaming of the presents they will receive in the morning.
After midnight mass families return home or visit a restaurant to enjoy a feast known as le reveillon. The foods served for le reveillon vary according to the region. Served in many courses, the meal may include such meats as roast beef, leg of lamb, goose, chicken, turkey, duck, pheasant, quail, grouse, and baked ham. Wild boar and venison are considered delicacies for this Christmas meal. The fish course may include all kinds of fresh water fish, oysters, snails, sea urchins, shrimp, clams, mussels, and lobster. One region of France makes buckwheat cakes served with sour cream a must-have dish for their reveillon. Salads and fruit such as oranges, apples, bananas, pears, grapes, tangerines, and plums are enjoyed by celebrants as well as all kinds of bread. Cheeses of all shapes and sizes and an assortment of pates made with goose, duck, or rabbit liver which may be mixed with minced ham or pork are integrated into this extensive meal. Wait! The meal is not finished yet. There is still dessert. Boxes of chocolates, hard candies, candied fruit, and other pastries like tartes, pies, tartlets, petit fours, napoleons, éclairs grace the table accompanying the piece de resistance, the buche de Noel or Yule Log cake. This sponge cake is rolled with a chocolate butter cream filling and frosted with a brown icing. It is often marked with lines to make it look like a log. It may also be decorated with confectioners’ sugar, nuts, images of Pere Noel, roses, sugar or real, elves, or sprigs of fresh holly. Wine and/or champaign also accompanies the meal.
For more about Christmas in France and other Christmas customs please visit my website, http://www.customsofchristmas.com.