french christmas traditions

Joyeux Noël! A Guide to French Christmas Traditions

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Christmas and Holiday Traditions in France

Every year around December 20th, large numbers of Parisians pack up their latest fashion items, carefully wrap boutique food they swear they can only find in that one place, and journey by car or train to celebrate Noël, the French Christmas, with their families all over France.

The French Christmas Table

Like many traditions in France, Noël centers around food, or rather, gatherings of families that appreciate fine regional products together.  This concentration on food has allowed the largely secular modern French to continue their end-of-year traditions and created a link between people of different religious traditions or none, a little like the American Thanksgiving.

All over France, the main Christmas meal takes place on December 24th and is usually called Le Réveillon de Noël (its root is “veille”, which means eve or vigil). Presents are given at the end of the meal, after Midnight Mass for the families that attend. There are a few Christmas staples that are popular all over the country and that you’ll find on most French tables during the Noël celebrations:

Les Huîtres d’Oléron

Oysters from the island of Oléron – an island in the Atlantic off the coast of La Rochelle – are famous for their delicate marine taste, which they borrow from the blue algae in which they develop. All over France at this time of year, you’ll find street vendors in their wooden huts, selling oysters by the dozen (“la douzaine d’huîtres”).

Le Foie Gras

A dish from the South-Western region of Périgord, fattened duck or goose liver is a protected regional specialty.  As well as the well-known paté version, you can buy it raw then sear and serve it with fresh leaf salad as an intermediary course after the oysters.

Le Chapon

Capon is a neutered rooster that is almost the size of a turkey. Its flesh is more succulent than almost any other Christmas bird, with the exception of goose (l’oie, another Noël classic, though less easy to find). Capons are bred all over the French countryside, but especially in the Périgord. It’s served with winter vegetables and greens, and most stuffings incorporate foie gras.

Le Champagne

It’s often the wine of choice to accompany foie gras on toast, though there is a debate as to whether sweet white wines are better with foie gras. Don’t venture an opinion unless you’ve tried both combinations and can defend your position, as the arguments get very passionate!

Noël en Provence – Christmas in Provence

Beyond those Christmas staples, there are several regional variations in France – Alsace, the Landes, and Basque country, Burgundy, and Savoie all have their vibrant and ancient Noëls. But the most famous are the Christmas traditions of Provence, which are unique in Europe and remain unusual even in contemporary city-dominated France.

You probably think of Provence as the land of lavender and sunflower fields, little stone chapels, and stark blue mountains made famous by the painters Van Gogh and Gauguin. That summery Provence is real and remains a land of joy and honey. In winter, however, its temperatures drop, especially in the hills and mountains of the backcountry. The Provençal Noël grew from the need to stay warm at the winter solstice as well as celebrate the religious festival.

Les Santons de Provence

The most visible of the Christmas traditions is the living Nativity scene, known as la crèche, that you might encounter in a Provençal village. It has its domestic counterpart in the small figurines called santons, which are arranged on trays and countertops from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night (l’Éphiphanie, January 6th) in homes, stores, and market stalls. 

These handmade figurines have multiplied and formed a whole community. Along with the holy family, shepherds and angels, there are traditional characters from a Provençal village:  a miller, a fisherman, a wood-carrier, a blind man and his son, an old couple, two Romani figures known as boumian et boumiane, a farm laborer called lou pistachié, a village fool, known as lou ravi, the happy simpleton, and the mayor of the village, lou conse. These figures stand in elaborate sets made of bridges, rivers, haylofts, and the Nativity stable, with its star stuck above.

As well as their elaborate Christmas scenes, the Provençaux are famous for their feasting traditions, which bring together extended families and any friend alone for the season.  On Christmas Eve, families with fireplaces will light a fire, which is meant to burn for three days and three nights. It symbolizes the returning light and honors the wider kin circle – those who’ve died, those alive today and those yet to be born.  Families without fireplaces simply use three candles placed in the middle of the table.

 The first part of the Christmas Eve meal takes place before Midnight Mass, and unlike the rest of France, is called Le Grand Souper – the big supper.  In more religious times, it was centered around fish and devoid of all meat or fat, as Advent was not yet over. 

The cooks made up for this with the number and creativity of the dishes! Nowadays, the Catholic convention of avoiding meat and fat over the Advent has largely died out, so you might find a turkey, capon or goose served during Le Grand Souper.  After Midnight Mass, which many people still attend, the family returns home and the real fun starts – the Thirteen Desserts!

Les 13 Desserts – Christmas Eve Desserts in Provence

This is a relatively recent practice in Provençal history, dating to the mid-19th century, but it builds on much older, Medieval, and even Roman customs. The desserts are codified:

Les Quatre Mendiants: noix ou noisettes, figues sèches, amandes, et raisins secs – the four beggars: walnuts or hazelnuts, dried figs, almonds, and dried raisins.

Les pommes – the apples

Le raisin frais – the fresh grapes

Le melon vert de fin de saison – the last of the green melon

L’orange – the orange, a sign of wealth

Les dattes – the dates, symbols of the Eastern origins of Christ

Le nougat noir – the black nougat, made with almonds and mountain honey,

Le nougat blanc – white nougat, made with hazelnuts, pine nuts, and pistachios.

Le nougat rouge – red nougat, made with rose and pistachios.

La pompe à huile, literally, the oil pump – a kind of olive oil and orange brioche!

I can’t leave you salivating over all this without at least one recipe:

Traditional French Chrismas brioche recipe

La Recette de la Pompe à Huile

feeds 8 people, 2 cakes.

4 ¾ cups of all-purpose flour, sifted.

1 cube of yeast (approximately 1/5 cup)

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ – 2/3 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons of orange flower water

the rind of one untreated orange

2 whole medium eggs

1 egg yolk

A pinch of salt

A glass of lukewarm water

In a bowl, mix the yeast with 1/6 of the flour and a pinch of sugar. Let it rest in a warm place for 2 hours at least.

Once the yeast has risen: in another bowl, mix all the other ingredients except for the egg yolk until smooth, then add the yeast and knead until it’s even. Roll the pastry into a large round ball and place it in a large bowl (like a large salad bowl) and let it rise in a warm place for 3 hours.

Knead again for a couple of minutes, then divide in two and shape into two round cakes of ¾ inch at least. Slash sun rays on the top with a knife and let the two cakes rest for another hour.

Toward the end of that rest period, set the oven at 302°F and place a small bowl of water inside.  Beat the egg yolk with a fork. Paint the cakes with the egg yolk, and place in the oven on a baking tray with olive oil or non-stick baking paper. Bake for 10-15 minutes, leaving the water bowl inside to keep the cake moist and help it rise. Keep an eye on your cakes for the last 5 minutes!

You can serve them warm or cold – the first one on Christmas Eve and the second on Christmas Day. It makes a delicious breakfast dish.

And now, bon appétit et Joyeux Noël!

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