France is the next stop on our Christmas Around the World series. Language Insight investigates the cultures and customs of the festive season across the English Channel.

The build-up

Just like in Germany, Christmas comes early for some children in France. St Nicholas Day on December 6th marks the day when the saint visited villages to hand out gifts to the children who had been good. Today, kids in the north of France leave out their shoes in the hope that they will be filled with presents. They also go to bed hoping that it won’t be Père Fouettard who comes calling, as this character is known to dispense whips and spanks to anyone who has been naughty.

When it comes to decking the halls for the festive season, French homes tend not to feature a Christmas tree. Instead, a Nativity scene is the central focal point of houses during this time of year. All the figures you would expect to see are there, along with others of famous characters.

Although the Christmas market is largely perceived as a German tradition, there is one in France that has been going for centuries. Christkindelsmärik in Strasbourg takes place in the shadow of the city’s cathedral and has been held since the late 16th century. Thousands of people head here every year to buy gifts and taste the local delicacies.

Who is the French Santa?

Saint Nicholas Day continues to be marked in many parts of France, but the main bringer of gifts at this time of year is Père Noël. Although he wears red and has a big white beard, Père Noël differs from Santa Claus in a few key ways.

To begin with, he is accompanied by a donkey rather than reindeer. He also fills shoes, not stockings, with presents, which means the Christmas gifts traditionally given in France have to be small enough to fit into a child’s shoe.

Père Noël is not the only person known to visit French homes at Christmas. While in some countries a mince pie is left out for Father Christmas, in France it is traditional to leave the fire burning and food and drink on the table for the Virgin Mary to enjoy if she pops in overnight. Meanwhile, the Christ Child is thought to be as responsible for bringing presents on Christmas Day as Père Noël.

Because in France Christmas is a festival for children, many adults hold off opening their presents until New Year’s Eve. This is seen as the more grown-up celebration – although we’re not sure we’d have the restraint to hold out that long before opening our gifts!

The feast

France is known to be the culinary centre of the world, so it should come as no surprise to learn that good food is one of the most important aspects of Christmas here. The feasting kicks off in style in the very early hours of Christmas Day following Midnight Mass, and is known as Réveillon.

Most of the dishes on the menu are sheer decadence, and vary region by region. For example, if you live in Paris you can expect to tuck into oysters, foie gras and lobster accompanied with champagne. In other regions, you can sample turkey stuffed with chestnuts, while elsewhere bvoudin blanc (a white pudding) is popular.

For dessert, Bûche de Noël is almost always served. This is a delicious yule log made from génoise sponge and filled with buttercream. In Province, there’s a chance for real gluttony as treize desserts is served up. In case your French isn’t that great, that’s 13 desserts!

Réveillon is not just celebrated in France, but in many other French-speaking regions, including Quebec in Canada and New Orleans in the US.

If you’re French, why not share some of your own Christmas customs below?

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