A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time by Guy de Maupassant, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Paul Arène, Francois Copée, Dominique Fabre. This is a book I've been coveting ever since I posted about upcoming Christmas books in my Christmas in July post last summer. I was beyond thrilled when it was included in my gift. Thanks again, Lucy. Anyway, the book inspired me to do my first Christmas Around the World post this season about France.
Parts of France begin their Christmas season by celebrating St. Barbara's day on December 4. In southern France, wheat germs are placed in water to soak, then are placed in dishes to germinate near the chimney or a sunny window. The folk tale goes that if the grain grows quickly, the crops will be prosperous in the coming year, but if the grain dies, the crops will be ruined. Children carefully tend this "Barbara grain." On Christmas Eve, it is placed near the creche or manger scene, symbolizing the coming harvest.
According to legend in France, the Virgin Mary gave Lorraine (an area in France) to St. Nicholas as a reward on December 6. Hence, St. Nicholas Day. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Lorraine and he visits each year. On the eve of the day, children in Lorraine (and other areas) hang their stockings by the fire and say a prayer to the saint before bed. The English translation is "Saint Nicholas, my good patron, bring me something good." Children who have been good receive toys and bonbons, and the naughty children receive stout rods. St. Nicholas leaves a reminder to children that he is watching...branches of birch twigs tied with a ribbon.
Christmas Eve or le Noel
Distributing the gifts to the children, church attendance, and family dinners are the usual activities on Christmas Eve. The children arrange their shoes (or boots, for more presents) by the fireplace. Some have their presents placed under the tree. France's version of Santa Claus is le Pere Noel and he does not travel by sleigh. Instead, he travels on foot accompanied by a donkey who carries the presents. As the children sleep, small toys, candies, and fruits are hung on the Christmas tree, adding to the gifts left by le Pere Noel.
In the larger cities, such as Paris, wining, dining and dancing are common on Christmas Eve. The smaller towns and cities focus more on the religious aspect of Christmas. Since France is predominantly Roman Catholic, midnight masses are celebrated with gloriously lighted churches and cathedrals and joyful sounds of carols and bells are heard.
Upon returning from church, a special dinner is served called le reveillon. This meal consists of baked ham, roast fowl, salads, cake, fruit, bonbons, and wine. There are variations from region to region which might be goose in Alsace or buckwheat cakes with sour cream in Breton. In Paris, oysters, white sausage, a meat pie called tourtiere, roast partridge, or turkey with chestnuts might be served. The entire country embraces the tradition of a cake in the shape of a Yule log, La Buche de Noel. In the distant past, a real Yule log was left burning while families were away at midnight mass. Sometimes the meal was cooked over the fire from the log. This tradition came from pagan origins, called the "feast of fire," which commemorated the winter solstice.
The most notable contribution from France to the celebration of Christmas worldwide, which also happens to be the most popular Christmas symbol in French homes and churches, is the creche or manger scene. The original scene was put on as a drama in cathedrals and churches. The manger we know today was actually started by St. Francis of Assisi some time between 1316 and 1334 in Italy. The concept of the creche did not gain popularity until the sixteenth century.
The creche takes a prominent place in French households. The holy family is included, of course, but also people of the village like the mayor, the priest, the policeman, the butcher, and the farmer. Though the creche is put up weeks before Christmas, the baby Jesus is not placed until Christmas morning, and the Magi are not added until the sixth of January, the feast day of the Epiphany.
Christmas trees gained popularity rather late in France. The first was the holy tree of Christmas presented in the city of Strasbourg in 1605. It was decorated with artificial colored roses, apples, wafers, gold foil, and sweets. The custom of the Christmas tree did not become widely popular until Napoleon planted one for his son in the Tuileries Garden on Christmas day, 1867.
Decorations vary, but are pretty typical. Where opinions differ is in regards to what should placed at the top of the tree. le Pere Noel, and angel, a star, or the infant Jesus.
Different regions of France have their own distinct customs. In Burgundy, children put alms for the poor in little paper bags. In the Maritime Alps, a torchlight procession on skis leads to midnight mass. In the village of Solliesville in Provence, everyone in the town gathers to give bread to twelve children selected as symbols of the twelve apostles, each one receiving an obol of bread, meat, and candies.
New Year's Day
In France, this day is just as important as Christmas. In fact, it's the day for the largest, most common exchange of gifts. The children even get another round of gifts from St. Nicholas. Greeting cards are sent for New Year's Day, as a custom.
Le Jour Des Rois, Fete Des Rois, Day of the Kings, or Feast of Epiphany is on January 6. In Normandy, this day is celebrated with parties. The Cake of the Kings is the crowning glory of the elaborate feast. This thin, round cake is cut in the pantry, covered with a white napkin, and carried into the dining room on a small table. The cake is cut into one or more pieces than there are people in attendance. This extra share, called le part a Dieu, God's share, is intended for the first poor person to come to the door. It's exciting to the celebrants because a small piece of china or a dried bean is baked into the cake. The person who finds it becomes king or queen of the party and, choosing a partner, they rule the feast.
Source: Christmas Worldwide: A Guide to Customs and Traditions by Cathy C. Tucker
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