History of Christmas in France

Joyeux Noel!

In France, Christmas goes by the name of Noël. This stems from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles,which means “the good news.” This is in reference to the gospel and spreading the word of Jesus Christ’s birth. Santa clause is called Père Noël, meaning “Father Christmas.” He is dressed in old fashioned robes trimmed with fur, and carries a sack of gifts.

Gift Giving in France

Like many countries in Western Europe, the Christmas season in France begins with Saint Nicholas’ Day, December 6th. In eastern areas of France, particularly Alsace-Lorraine, parents give children their Christmas gifts on Saint Nicholas’ Day, as opposed to Christmas Day, which is reserved for religious services and a family dinner. In other parts of France, Père Noël comes bearing gifts on Christmas Eve for the good children. He places small treats and toys in the children’s shoes, which they leave by the fireplace. Adults often wait until New Years Day to exchange gifts with one another.

French Christmas Symbols

Christmas trees can be found in France, though they are not as popular as they are in Germany, Great Britain and the United States. By far the most popular Christmas symbol in France is the nativity scene, or Christmas Crèche. Introduced by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1224, the Christmas Crèche did not really catch on in popularity until the time of the Renaissance of the 16th Century.

Many regions of France also use Santons in their Christmas decorations. Translated, santons mean little saints. The small village of Aubagne, in the Provencal region of France, is considered the world capital of santons. Santons became popular during the French Revolution, when many churches were closed and larger nativity scenes were outlawed. Along with biblical figures, santons can also represent everyday people, such as a mayor, a baker, policemen or a local priest.

French Christmas Cuisine

The traditional French Christmas dinner usually takes place after the midnight mass on Christmas eve. Called le reveillon, the main dishes of this holiday dinner vary from region to region. In Alsace, goose is served as the main dish, while in Brittany buckwheat pancakes with sour cream are a featured dish. Turkey and chestnuts are popular in Burgundy, while in Paris and Il-de-France region oysters are served. Of course, no French Christmas dinner would be complete without the traditional log shaped cake, Buche de Noel.

Twelfth Night /Epiphany

In Provencal, children would go outside during Twelfth Night (the day before the Epiphany) to meet with the three kings who were on their way to give the Baby Jesus his gifts. The children would give the three kings food for themselves and their pages. In return, the kings would give the children gifts. In honor of this occasion, another popular Christmas dessert, known as the Cake of The King, was served. Decorated with designs of stars, crown, dragons and flowers, a special bean or trinket was baked inside. Whoever got the piece with the bean was “king” for the following year. Popular up until the 19th Century, the Cake of the King still graces the holiday tables in French-speaking Quebec, where old world customs are still practiced. A similar cake, simply called Kings Cake, is served in Louisiana, to mark the start of the Mardi Gras season.

Orginally posted at Suite101 History of Christmas in France

All images used are from the Public Domain

All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015

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