Joyeux Noël! French Christmas customs

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

In France, Christmas is a time for family and for generosity marked by family reunions, gifts and candy for children, gifts for the poor, Midnight Mass and le Réveillon. The celebration of Christmas in France varies by region. Most provinces celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, which is a bank holiday. However, in eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on Dec. 6, la Fête de Saint Nicolas (St. Nicholas Festival). In some provinces la Fête des Rois (The King Festival) is one of the most important holidays of the Christmas season. In Lyon, Dec. 8 is la Fête de Lumières (festival of lights), when the city's residents pay homage to the Virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows to light up the village.

French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace instead of hanging stockings, in the hopes that Père Noël (Santa Claus) will fill them with gifts. Candy, fruit, nuts and small toys will also be hung on the tree overnight. There's also Père Fouettard, who gives out spankings to bad children, sort of the equivalent of Santa Claus giving coal to the naughty. There is a law in France that says that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. When a class writes a letter, each student gets a response. The local post office has a big box of letters!

Although fewer and fewer French attend la Messe de Minuit (Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve, it is still an important part of Christmas for many families. It is followed by a huge feast, called le Réveillon, which means "to awake." Le Réveillon is a symbolic awakening to the meaning of Christ's birth and is the culinary high point of the season, which may be enjoyed at home or in a restaurant or café that is open all night.

Throughout the French Christmas season, there are special traditional desserts: La bûche de Noël is a log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. It represents the special wood log burned from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day. Le pain calendeau is a Christmas loaf, part of which is given to a poor person. La Galette des Rois is a round cake which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi (the little king) or l'enfant soleil (the sun child), hiding under the table. Whoever finds la fève (the charm hidden inside) is King or Queen and can choose a partner.

Every major city has a Marche de Noel (a Christmas Market). In the center of town, there are several small cottages that are filled with vendors. Each vendor has its own theme: candles, scarves, candy, etc. This is where many people buy their Christmas presents. The markets start on the fourth of December and last until Christmas Eve.

I have enjoyed learning about the French Christmas customs. If you have questions or comments, e-mail Pictures are posted at my Web site:

Brittany Lang of Cape Girardeau is a student studying in France as part of the Rotary International student exchange program.s

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