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Joyeux Noël! A Guide to 6 French Christmas Traditions

Merry Christmas! Or Joyeux Noël in French! Christmas in France is a joyful experience steeped in rich traditions. We’ve put together a list of French traditions in France, from Lyon to Provence to Alsace so you can celebrate with us Christmas, the French way! Here are 6 of our many traditions and a little on their origins!

Le Bûche de Noël is the French name for the Yule log, the Christmas cake that resembles a fallen log. It is usually served in France after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Light-as-air, the vanilla Genoise cake is rolled into a cylinder and made with the richest, homemade chocolate buttercream frosting. Confectioners’ sugar is then added for a festive snowy look.

Back before the medieval era, Celtic Brits and Gaelic French would gather to mark the winter solstice at the end of December. They would feast to celebrate the days that would become longer, and to renew the year and usher in the spring, families would burn logs decorated with holly, pinecones or ivy.

The shape of the logs inspired bakers and hence the bûche was then born. Popularised by Parisian bakers in the 19th century, different bakeries became known for their more elaborate decorations and today the flavours have become bolder and daring, with chefs experimenting with chestnuts, hazelnuts, coffee.

No Christmas dinner is complete without foie gras, which is prepared and served differently across various parts of France!

In the Alsace region in northwestern France for instance, a traditional meal is stuffed goose served with sauerkraut, foie gras, mulled wine, gingerbread and bredeles — Christmas cookies traditionally flavoured with cinnamon, anise, or orange.

In the Dijon and Burgundy in central France, Christmas dinner features turkey stuffed with chestnuts and is also of course accompanied by a good red wine from the region, a Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. Of course, you can have some champagne if you’d like.

Dinner is a beautiful and elaborate affair, an intimate moment shared among family and can last as long as 6 hours, so indulge, but pace yourself for some joyous merrymaking.

If your palette might be skewed more towards seafood, Christmas in France is a great time for oysters too.

In Paris and Île-de-France and a little all over France, oysters and escargots make typical hors d’oeuvres, appetisers, starters. Shucking oysters is an art — a delicate process of entering the shell of the oyster to reach its succulent meat without losing the nectar, the delectable juice. Be careful with your knife or you might end up in the hospital!

There are also plenty of other shellfish. Coquilles Saint Jacques, named after Saint James who ended his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on the Spanish Atlantic coast, is a scallop dish that you must try. Lobsters. Mussels. Langoustes and langoustines. All things from the blue seas of Bretagne and Côte d’Azur.

And finally… petit dessert… les papillotes! The papillote is a chocolate we eat mainly during Christmas, composed of:

  • an outer gold or silver paper: shiny, sparkling, brilliant;
  • a riddle, a joke, a funny quote and / or a firecracker and
  • a treat, sometimes a fruit paste, but more generally chocolate

Legend has it that the papillotes were born in Lyon in the district of Terreaux at the end of the eighteenth century, when a young confectioner apprentice wanted to charm the beautiful girl working a floor above him by sending her little words of love wrapped around a confectionery.

The Santons are small, hand-crafted terracotta figurines that are produced in the Provence region in southeastern France.

In a traditional Provençal crèche, the Santons recount the scene of nativity of the baby Jesus, and along with the Three Kings and traveling shepherds, there are 55 individual figures representing various characters from Provençal village life from the scissors grinder, to the fishwife, the blind man, and the chestnut seller.

A maker of santons is a santonnier, and the creation of santons today is essentially a family craft, handed down from parents to children. Since 1803, santonniers have gathered in Marseille each December to display and sell their wares at the Foire des Santonniers.

It was in Strasbourg in 1570 that the first edition of the oldest Christmas market in Europe, christened “Christkindelsmärik” (the child Jesus market), was held. Since then, Strasbourg has continued the tradition of Traditional Alsatian Christmas, authentic, warm and generous.

Held annually near Strasbourg Cathedral, this Marché de Noël draws in approximately 2 million visitors each year and since the arrival of TGV service in Strasbourg in 2007, the number of visitors has been on the rise. Hotels are booked a year in advance, so it will be best to start right now if you have not already!

When at this Christmas market, take a good glass of warm wine, fragrant and spicy, to warm your soul as you stroll through these historic streets of this beautiful city.

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