My husband and I moved to Paris almost five years ago. In a part of the world where food and wine are of great importance, we've learned that many elaborate and beautiful meals have interesting backstories. Traveling throughout France, we have cultivated friendships with villagers who raise lamb, produce wine, jams, and cheeses. We've sat around many a large family table where dinner is served with much pride and excitement.
That said, the Christmas season brings the most luxurious and spectacular ingredients to the table, as well as the most prized bottles up from the family cave, or cellar.
Every region of France has individual traditions when it comes to the highly anticipated Réveillon, the feast eaten on Christmas Eve. This decadent meal used to be eaten after attending midnight mass. Now it’s generally a very long and indulgent meal that begins around 6 and goes until late, and some go to midnight mass after.
The French Christmas Eve dinner table is strictly for family. It’s a time for a very intimate and private holiday dinner. Along with the very best wine chosen for each course, Champagne is an essential Christmas beverage, the opening to a long and beautiful meal.
Typical h’ors d’oeuvres are things like toast with foie gras, smoked salmon, oysters, escargots, and other specialty dishes. A Parisian friend of mine has a tradition of starting with foie gras and a glass of Sauternes wine. Another family recipe of hers that sounds superbly simple and delicious is clams prepared as if they were escargots, generously topped with garlic parsley butter and broiled in the oven.
Seafood and poultry seem to rule the menus for this annual blow-out feast. One of the Christmas dishes I can’t wait to taste is chapon farcie aux truffes, a capon stuffed with black truffles underneath the skin, with a stuffing that includes foie gras, sausage and herbs. Other Christmas specialties are dishes like turkey stuffed with chestnuts, roast goose, lobster, scallops, and boudin blanc, a delicate white sausage.
For dessert, many French have Le Bûche de Noël, a génoise vanilla sponge cake, rolled and covered with chocolate buttercream and meringue mushrooms. Sometimes it’s flavored with chestnut paste or espresso. This log shaped cake is representative of a wood “yule” log burned from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day from an old pagan Gaul celebration in the Périgord region. Some people collect a special log, light it Christmas Eve, and burn it until midnight every night until New Year’s day.
A few friends have told us that they forego the bûche for one of the many other traditional Christmas desserts. A particularly intriguing one from Provence is called Treize Desserts, the thirteen desserts. Representing Jesus and the twelve disciples, and varying from family to family, it consists of nougat, walnuts, dates, clementines, and nine other things to nibble on.
For some regions in France, Christmas begins on December 6th, la fête de Saint Nicolas. On this day St. Nicolas brings gifts for children to open right away, and gifts for adults to be opened on New Year’s Eve. In the far north and east of France, there is the assistant to St. Nicolas, Père Fouettard, who delivers coal to the shoes of the naughty children. Children put their shoes by the fireplace or underneath the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. They then get filled with gifts by Père Noël, Father Christmas, and the tree also gets additional decorations of fruits, nuts and toys hung that night too.
In other parts of the country, it’s Le Fête des Rois, Kings Day, that is the most important holiday of the Christmas season. On King’s Day, there is a round frangipane-filled King’s Day cake that has le fève, a charm, hidden inside. Whoever finds the charm in their slice of cake becomes King or Queen for the day. A sweet tradition!
One of the most magical festivals of the holiday season ( in the world!) happens in the city of Lyon. On December 8th there is la Fête de Lumières, the festival of lights. Every window sill has candles lit and every building is illuminated. This began in the 16th century and has turned into a 4 day affair culminating on the 8th of December.
But possibly my favorite aspect of Christmas in France is the fact that in the 60’s, a law was passed that all letter’s written to Père Noël must be responded to. Even when an entire school or class sends a letter, every student gets a postcard in return. Hopefully it's not to late to get our letters sent...
We're celebrating Christmas and the winter holidays around the world, inviting friends and fellow writers from The Philippines to France to Rwanda to share how the holidays are celebrated in their corner of the world.
(Image credits: Danielle Rubi-Dentzel)