By Karen Jurgens
Joyeux Noël! Having always been a French teacher, I can’t help but mix in a little of France with my Christmas traditions. I enjoyed creating aspects of Christmas in France every year for my students, from the traditional carols we sang to the midnight Christmas feast and even the stocking and candy game we played as a gift exchange.
Although France is historically Catholic, its religious and secular celebrations are a delightful addition to swirl in with our own. Let me share some of them with you.
Their celebration of our Santa Claus is quite different, and one interesting French story brings him to life. It tells about three children who were kidnapped by an evil butcher in the forest and held captive. Just as they were about to be killed, Père Noël came to their rescue, delivering them from their fate and returning them safely home. This heroic action elevated him to the status of protector for all children. There is even a song about it, called La Légende de Saint-Nicholas.
Additionally, Children have a special day to celebrate Santa Claus that is different from ours. December 6th is their Saint Nicholas Day when Père Noël, or Father Christmas, brings candy for the good children, while Père Fouettard, or Father Spanking, brings sticks or lumps of coal for those who were bad. French children place their shoes by the fireplace the night before, and the next day, they awake to their judgment: candy, sticks or sometimes some of each!
Their Christmas celebration is traditionally a religious one. Families attend Midnight Mass at the very beginning of Christmas morning, followed by a huge Christmas meal, Le Réveillon. As the Yule log burns in the fireplace, they feast on oysters, lobster, roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose, pâté de fois gras, salads, cheeses, and champagne. For dessert, there’s always a luscious bûche de Noël —a sponge cake rolled with chocolate buttercream frosting, decorated with meringue mushrooms and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar—a representation of the Yule log.
courtesy of Getty Images
Santons (figurines displayed around the manger scene) decorate each home where the crèche scene is proudly displayed. They range in all sizes, but families collect elaborate ones, adding more each year. In some regions, small children believe that the Christ Child brings them their presents, which they receive on Christmas Day. Christmas presents are mainly for children, but adults exchange gifts and cards on New Year’s Day, called Le Jour de l’An, and wish each other Bonne Année.
The celebrating continues to Epiphany, which falls on January 6th, when the Three Wise Men are supposed to have arrived at the manger laden with gifts for the Christ Child. The puff-pastry almond cake baked for this occasion is la galette des Rois, and the person who gets the piece with the dried bean or tiny baby figurine becomes a king or queen and wears a paper crown.
I still enjoy singing the French carols we sang at school every December, from Vive le vent, or Jingle Bells, to my most favorite, Il est né, le divin enfant, or The Holy Child is Born. I hope you enjoy the video, sung by a children’s choir in Salt Lake City, Utah.
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Are your Christmas traditions influenced by those from another country? Please share them with us.
photos courtesy of euroclubschools.co.uk, and collinsflags.com. Video courtesy of http://www.childrensing.com.