As in many other countries, December and January in France bring a series of festivals and celebrations. Today, we thought we’d help you discover – or rediscover – some French customs associated with Christmas and New Year, a special time for all of us. For those who are learning French, it’s also an opportunity to refresh your memory by revising some Christmas vocabulary and, at the same time, reminding yourself about the origins of some French Christmas traditions. So, dive in and learn more about French culture while also expanding your linguistic knowledge. Perfect! There will be a lot of French speakers using these words in a few days’ time, so prepare now and you won’t be caught out when the time comes!
First, all families decorate a Christmas tree, the famous sapin (fir tree), with guirlandes (garlands) – bright ribbons in every colour of the rainbow. It’s tricky to pinpoint precisely where the tradition of the Christmas tree comes from, but historians know that it was inherited from pagan times. The Celts, for example, referred to the spruce as ‘the tree of childbirth’. As an evergreen, the species symbolised life and rebirth. Families also set up a crèche (nativity scene), featuring the Enfant-Jésus (Baby Jesus). If it snows, children can build a bonhomme de neige (snowman) before helping their parents to decorate the house. Speaking of decorations, the boules (baubles) that are hung from the branches of the tree were originally made of glass and came from the Vosges region. They were shaped like red apples, a reference to the forbidden fruit.
Presents are placed at the foot of the tree: emballer (to wrap) is the verb we use to talk about covering gifts in multicoloured paper before giving them, while déballer refers to the action of unwrapping the parcels. Finally, in addition to handing out presents, it’s important to remember to admire the illuminations (Christmas lights) twinkling in the local streets or to go to messe de minuit (midnight mass) in the evening. The gifts themselves may be given to children after dinner on Christmas Eve or, in the case of little ones, the following morning.
Of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Père Noël (Father Christmas), complete with long white beard, red outfit and a traîneau (sleigh), drawn by the rennes (reindeer). With his big sack (hotte), he goes from house to house to deliver presents to all the children who have been well-behaved. Helped by his loyal lutins (elves), he flies through the sky with all the toys and, during the night of 24 to 25 December, he comes down the chimney to leave them under the Christmas tree.
In Provence, Christmas nativity scenes include small figures known as santons. Their name derives from the Provençal word santoun, which means ‘little saints’. The Enfant Jèsu (Baby Jesus), Sant Jousè (Joseph), Santo Vierge (Virgin Mary), ase (donkey) and lou biou (ox) are naturally among the characters who make an appearance during the Christmas festivities! Crafted from clay and painted in bright colours, making them requires real expertise, which has been handed down from generation to generation. In addition to the nativity, Provençal crèches also feature scenes from everyday life, and the santons depict some of the traditional livelihoods of our beautiful region.
As everyone knows, Christmas and New Year are a time for sharing. In France, dinde (turkey) with marrons (chestnuts) is enjoyed by many people. The bird is a classic choice for the Réveillon (Christmas Eve dinner), alongside chapon (capon), oysters, smoked salmon and foie gras. In fact, two special dinners, both known as Réveillon, are celebrated – the evening of 31 December also features a hearty meal! As for dessert, there are lots of possible options, but the traditional choice is still the bûche de Noël (yule log). This Swiss roll covered with a coffee- or chocolate-flavoured buttercream frosting first arrived in France in around 1870 and is shaped like the logs used to heat homes. In days gone by, tradition had it that at the winter solstice, a large log from a fruit tree (such as a cherry tree or a chestnut tree) should be placed in the fireplace to burn all night long.
Jour de l’an or Nouvel an is the first day of the new year. Festivities begin the day before, on 31 December, known in France as La Saint-Sylvestre. According to tradition, homes should be decorated with gui (mistletoe), a plant which symbolises happiness. When the clock strikes midnight, guests offer each other a kiss and wish one another bonne année (Happy New Year in French) and good health. On 31 December, the Head of State also traditionally offers a New Year’s message to his fellow countrymen and women. Known as the vœux présidentiels, these messages have been broadcast on television since General de Gaulle began the practice during the Fifth Republic.
Epiphany, which is widely celebrated in France, is a holiday which brings joy to young and old alike. According to Christian tradition, it commemorates the visit of the Rois Mages (Three Kings or Three Wise Men) to the Baby Jesus. It is celebrated on 6 January (or on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day) with a Galette des Rois. Ever since the Middle Ages, guests have come together on this day to share a galette (cake) in which is hidden a fève – a lucky charm in the form of a small figure representing a person or object. Whoever finds the charm is crowned the roi (king) or reine (queen) and given a gold paper crown. In many parts of the south of France, the gâteau des rois, a type of brioche crown studded with candied fruit, is eaten instead of the galette, and it’s just as good!