France, especially its countryside, is beautiful at any time of year, and at Christmas, it comes alive as a glittering festive wonderland. Our little villages are somehow even more picturesque, with their narrow alleyways and cobbled squares illuminated by twinkling lights and humming with the sounds of carols.
Every country has its unique traditions, and France is no exception; from the ancient tradition of Yule logs to the more recent law that states every letter to Father Christmas must be replied to, here we explore the traditions that make the holiday season in France truly magical.
Buche De Noel
The French equivalent of the ever-popular chocolate Festive Yule log dates back to the pre-Christian era when the winter solstice was celebrated by carrying an oak log to the family home to burn and gather around. It was around the 12th century that the Catholic church adopted the practice and made the addition of blessing the log for a good year too.
According to French tradition, the youngest or oldest girl from each family would have been given the honour of lighting the log using remains of embers collected and carefully stored from the previous year.
As homes became warmed with fireplaces and central heating, this tradition evolved. Nowadays, you’ll often find a small log used as a dining table centrepiece and adorned with pretty decorations and candles instead. Better still, you’ll also get to enjoy a sumptuous dessert version made using a rolled chocolate sponge or pastry drizzled in chocolate cream decorated with holly leaves and sugar roses.
The Christmas Celebration of Light
In the South of France and Limousin, the ancient tradition of the ‘Halha of Nadau’ is a festival where once a year, neighbours from rural villages get together to create a luminous precession of lights, usually starting out from a huge bonfire and ending at the village church. The tradition is thought to have begun when villagers travelled their fields at night, holding onto straw or corn leaf torches to light up the dark winter skies. They hoped that bringing in the light would create a good harvest and ward off any evil spirits. Later, these precessions became a special way for villagers to travel to church on Christmas Eve to celebrate midnight mass.
Nowadays, in December, you’ll find aspects of the traditional festival of lights celebrated throughout the country with fantastic light spectacles and installations in most cities, giving those cold winter nights a welcome boost of warmth and cheer.
Traditional Christmas feast ingredients vary from region to region but among the most popular are Oysters and Foie Gras, stuffed goose and more rustic components such as pork, chestnuts and potatoes.
Christmas Eve tends to serve as the most important time for feasting. One popular tradition is to have a beef stew bubbling away at home so that on return from Midnight Mass, there waiting is a hearty, warm meal, and the celebrations of Christmas have already begun!
Christmas pie or bread baked on Christmas Eve is also sometimes considered important because legend has it that this special pie holds magical powers to create luck and fortune!
And to finish, in some parts of France, offering a variety of 13 deserts is customary!
You’ll find Nativity scenes beautifully set out in most villages of France, and they’ll be left on display for 40 days after Christmas Day, bringing us until the 2nd of February!
This tradition dates back to the 1200s when stories were taught using living tableaux, which eventually evolved into using small clay figurines.
Nowadays, as well as the historic nativity characters, you might spot butchers, police officers and postmen making a cheeky appearance in the scene, and you can pick up a nativity set of your own at the many Christmas fairs up and down the country.
Shoes by the Fire
Around the world, the Christmas eve tradition varies for where Father Christmas might leave his presents, but in France, it is typical to leave your shoes by the fireplace for him to fill. Just make sure you’ve been good!
La Fetes Des Rois and La Galette Des Rois
January 6th marks Three Kings Day and the Epiphany in France. The custom is for families to buy a Galette de Rois, a special cake that contains a small hidden porcelain object inside. The person to find the prize in their slice of cake is proclaimed the King or Quen for the day and is honoured by wearing a pretend crown!
Throughout December, most towns in France boast sprawling Christmas markets with sparkling stalls where local businesses sell everything from homemade preserves, cakes and cookies to handcrafted candles and beautiful ornaments. Often, during the evenings, you’ll find street entertainment, shows and fire dancing. Check out our blog here for some events local to the Wyndham Halcyon Retreat.
And finally, Post Cards from Pere Noel… is Law!
In 1962, France introduced a law stipulating that any letter to Santa must be responded to in the form of a postcard. Each child receives their very own reply to their letter to Santa!
The tradition began when a postal worker back in the 1950s kindly began replying to children’s Santa letters instead of destroying them, which had previously been the procedure. Ten years later, having not been able to quite keep up with the demand, she made her idea official and set up “Le Secretariat du Pere Noel”, whereby today, the service employs around 60 people to act as “Santa’s Elves” who respond to each letter. The service is entirely free, and any envelope that contains the words “Father Christmas” or “Santa” are sent directly to “Santa’s Secretary”; you need only to remember to include a return address. How sweet!