In many parts of France, the Christmas celebrations already started some time ago.
As is the tradition in some parts of Europe, 6th December is marked by festivities, known as Saint Nicholas’ Day. The same is true in Northern and Eastern France too. Saint Nicholas is the protector of children – and this day is the one designated as his Saint Day. Of course, you may also know Saint Nicholas by another name – yes, of course, he is Father Christmas!
So on 5th December (Saint Nicholas Eve), children leave out their shoes in front of the fireplace and sing carols before going to bed. He then arrives on his donkey to bring sweets and presents for the children.
Then in the morning when the children wake up, they find the gifts that St Nicholas has left. However, any naught children are left with a little bundle of twigs tied together with a ribbon.
In many French towns, there are parades and celebrations, welcoming the arrival of St Nicholas. You will also see the very sinister figure of Père Fouettard who follows St Nicholas with a whip to spank naughty children.
And so the festivities begin. So what traditions do the French have, and how do they celebrate?
As children all over the world do, French children too will often send a letter to Father Christmas. However, since 1962 it has been law in France that any letter to Father Chistmas has to be responded to in the form of a postcard.
It’s usual for a French home to display a nativity scene, it’s very popular in Provence particularly. The scene will usually be made of wood or pottery, and this will be kept up until 2 February, 40 days after Christmas Day which is known as La Chandeleur. The figures will be added at different points, for example, Jesus in the Manger will not be placed into the scene until Christmas Day, and the Three Kings will only join on 6 January, or Epiphany. The figures in the scene aren’t also limited to the usual people you expect to see, there are also figures who represent people in the town, so the baker and the farmer will be found alongside Mary and Joseph. There’s also a figure called Le Ravi, who has his arms raised in delight to welcome the baby Jesus.
French families will often have a special meal at around midnight on Christmas Eve, so they are awake and will welcome in Christmas Day together around the table surrounded by food and drink. Again, children will leave their shoes out for Father Christmas to fill them with presents.
Midnight mass too, is fairly common, with church services and carols sung on Christmas Eve to welcome in Christ’s birthday.
In the south of France, there is a tradition known as the burning of the Yule Log, where a log is burnt in homes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. The premise behind it was that this log was used to make the wedge for a family’s plough, and it would bring good luck for the whole year. Now, most just tuck into the chocolate version instead!
But the celebrations don’t end on the 25th – in France, the 6th January is also an important date – the date when the Three Kings arrived bearing their gifts. A special cake, called la galette des Rois, or Kings’ Cake is made, made of puff pastry and filled with marzipan. Much like our sixpences in the Christmas pudding, a special trinket is hidden in the cake. Whoever finds it is King or Queen for the day, and they must wear the crown. Parties are held and games played, and continue well into January.
So Christmas is really a fantastic celebration which starts at the beginning of December and finishes well into January! Definitely one to take part in if you are looking for somewhere different to spend the festive period!!
By Gaby Kooiman, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3175523
By M Disdero - Mouriès, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3278258