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Christmas in France: Where Elaborate
Nativity Scenes Set a Worldwide Standard
A rare sight of a layer of powdered snow blanketing trees decorated with red bows with the Eiffel Tower off in the distance.
France revels in worldwide admiration for doing most things – and many people would say all things – in grand, imitable style. Its art (the Mona Lisa) and artists (Claude Monet) lure thousands of people to the world-class Louvre, a masterpiece in its own right that stands gracefully strident along the scenic Seine River.
France’s cathedrals (Notre Dame, Chartres and Marseille, among them) are as breathtaking as perhaps its most famous monuments (the Arc de Triomphe and Palace of Versailles) and its most photographed work of architecture (the Eiffel Tower). The country plays host to one of the most well-known sporting events in the world (the Le Tour De France) while its food and wine made “gourmet” an adjective that most connoisseurs automatically attribute to the largest country in western Europe.
Given the impeccable taste and vaunted standards of the French people, it should come as no surprise that they have elevated a relatively ubiquitous Christmas decoration to an unparalleled height of precision and creativity: the nativity scene, or creche. In many ways, Christmas in France is defined by these scenes.
Most nativity scenes feature Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, a donkey, a sheep, an ox and the three wise men – all watched overhead by an angel of God. But in many parts of France, people create a Provencal nativity, which co-mingles the usual biblical characters with villagers, dignitaries and musicians from the village of Provence, France. While the sheer number of these “little saints,” or santons, is rather remarkable, it is the craftsmanship of the clay pieces that is actually most impressive if not astounding.
The figures are sculpted to look as life-like as possible, captured in realistic “snapshots” of human movement. Their impeccable and expressive facial features grace body forms that are veiled in bright, painted clothing that is sometimes enhanced by a layer of real fabric. Most of France’s 63 million people are Christian and nearly three-quarters are Roman Catholic, so their nativity scenes are more than the focal point of their Christmas celebrations; the creches become a family legacy, with the molds passed from one generation to another to mark Christmas in France.
Like many time-honored traditions, the French’s Provencal nativity scenes sprung from a defiance of oppression and a quest for freedom of expression. Public nativities were forbidden during the French Revolution, as were midnight Masses on Christmas Eve, if churches were allowed to stay open at all. Without their church as a biblical backdrop to the birth of Jesus, the people of Provence recreated the scene – albeit with a great deal of secrecy – after 1803.
They lovingly expanded their little churches with little saints to include such eclectic figures as St. Francis of Assisi, a town crier, a blind man and his son, a water carrier, a fisherman, a tambourine player, a basket maker and a knife and scissors grinder. All of these characters are present in the manger for a reason, and the role of each in the story of the birth of Christ is explained in Provencal Christmas stories that are known as the Pastorales.
Even with the prospect of a Provencal nativity displayed underneath it, the Christmas tree has never enjoyed widespread popularity during Christmas in France. Instead, the French rely on flowers to make the crèches even more resplendent. Lush arrangements of roses, gladioli, carnations and snapdragons are intermingled with a traditional favorite – the poinsettia – and colorful bursts of hyacinths, azaleas and begonias.
Over time, the French’s affection for the “little saints” has grown in depth and magnitude: today, those who devote their lives to the Provencal craft are known as “santonniers.” Some create life-size displays that are exhibited in town squares around France. Meanwhile, the Pastorales are re-enacted in public throughout the country during Christmas in France while parents pass along the tales to their children on Christmas Eve.
On this night, the country air is filled with the sound of church bells playing carols, which are intended to draw families to midnight Mass.
This is a very long night for many French families, for they return for Le Reveillon, the grandest feast of the season that includes as many as
Christmas in France Showcases the Country’s Gourmet Tastes
The aperitif portion of the meal usually includes seven meatless (or mostly meatless) dishes – symbolic of the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. These dishes may include oysters, snails, cold cuts, smoked salmon, omelets, caviar and pâté de foie gras (a pate made from goose liver and marinated in cognac and truffles). People who want to save their appetite for the grandest part of the meal might snack from a large tray of 13 types of nuts and fruit that many French families display throughout the season. Representing Jesus and the 12 apostles, this tray might include toasted hazelnuts, almond, walnuts, raisins, oranges, apples, pears, fruit candies, shortbread cookies, white nougat, brown nougat, Christmas sweet bread and hard candy.
The main course of this elaborate meal varies widely by region and taste, as some French families might enjoy turkey stuffed with chestnuts while others partake in duck, goose or ham. Lobster and crab top the menu at many family gatherings during Christmas in France, as do the more exotic venison, capon and wild boar. For Le Reveillon, the emphasis is on rich, quality foods that are prepared with great care and presented with flair.
No French meal – much less this much-anticipated Christmas feast – would be complete without bread and cheese, both staples of the French diet. Sentimental favorites include croissants (crescent shaped rolls), baguette (a long, white crusty loaf) and brioche (a rich bread with eggs and butter). Cheese is wholly a matter of preference, as the French have about 1,000 varieties to choose from.
To complete the meal in grand style, the French create a cake called Buche de Noel, which means "Christmas log." The base is usually prepared in jelly roll fashion with a chocolate butter cream filling. The roll is frosted with dark chocolate and decorated to resemble the traditional and ancient Yule log. The French enjoy making variations of this beloved dessert, exchanging recipes for different types of cake, fillings and frostings during Christmas in France.
Following this family celebration, children finally say good night – or good morning – and leave their shoes by the fireplace with the hope of having them filled by Pere Noel, who dresses in a long, red robe and travels with a sack and donkey. (In the north of France, children receive gifts on December 6, which is St. Nicholas' Day.)
Christmas is called Noel in France, and it comes from the French phrase “les bonnes nouvelles," which means "the good news." This is a quiet time for many French families – at least until January 6, the day of the Epiphany, when the three kings visited the baby Jesus.
To mark the occasion, French families enjoy la galette des rois, a gracefully layered puff pastry filled with vanilla and almond pastry creams. Baked inside is a bean or a charm, and the child who finds it is deemed the “king” or “queen” for the day and given a crown to wear. An adult who finds the bean or charm is often required to provide a round a drinks to everyone in the room to celebrate Christmas in France.
This is hardly a difficult task, for wine is abundant in France. In fact, the country’s 500 winemakers produce about 8 billion bottles of wine – more than any other country in the world.
But with the French, of course, quantity is never the point; quality is, and French wines are considered to be among the best in the world, just like so many of the country’s other artistic expressions. On Jan. 6 – also known as the twelfth and final day of Christmas – the French have a great deal to toast as they bask in well-deserved national pride.
Baxter, John. A Paris Christmas: Immoveable Feast. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Christmas Moments in Provence. < http://frenchmoments.com/Christmas_Provence.html >
Crean, Susan. Discover France. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2012.
Fontes, Justine and Ron. A to Z France. Danbury: Scholastic, 2003.
France: Christmas traditions & customs. < http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/traditions/england.htm >
France Diplomatie. < http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/france/geography/general-points/article/key-figures >
Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
Nardo, Dan. Enchantment of the World: France. New York: Scholastic, 2008.
Paul, Tessa (ed.). France: A Portrait of the Country Through its Festivals and Traditions. Danbury: Marshall Cavendish Books, 1999.