Christmas is essential to the French. I dare say it's the most important festival of the year.
For Christians, it is the time to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
For my grandparents, it's the joy of meeting their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren – all of them together in one place – at least once a year.
For my parents, it's holiday time. They take care of each other, spend time in shops choosing gifts for everybody and they welcome the family home on the day of the festivities.
For my friends and I, it's the best time to go skiing! There is an incredible atmosphere in the Alps from Christmas to New Year's Eve, and we often spend two to three days in January to do some sports after eating so much. And, then we eat even more, such as a winter raclette (melted cheese dish) around the hearth.
For my nephews, it's the time to eat candies, from Father-Christmas-shaped chocolate to French fruit jellies and Christmas-tree-shaped almond paste.
And, for everyone, it's a wonderful gift ceremony.
Countdown: 24 days until Christmas!
We do a countdown of the 24 days before Christmas, with the traditional (and now international) advent calendar. Some people buy it in the supermarket, but the current trend is to make it on your own. To make mine, I collect 24 Christmas socks of various sizes, but not the ones you wear on your feet, of course (actually I might have also picked up a pair from my closet once or twice). This is the magic of Christmas; I hide a little gift or a candy in each sock. On the morning of December 1st, we open sock number one, the next day sock number two, and so on and so on until we get to the last sock which is Christmas Day. You can imagine how December is a month when every day starts with a big smile.
Early December is also the right time to bring home the Christmas tree. It must be a fir tree, the tallest, the awesomest, and every family member decorates it with his or her personal touch. Some choose two complementary colors (blue and white or red and gold), some play the white card year after year, and some illuminate it in every color.
Most cities in France erect a huge Christmas tree in the central square and organize events around it.
In France, as well as in many Christian countries, we traditionally build a nativity scene in our house. It represents Mary and Joseph in a wooden stable with a donkey and a cow. You're not supposed to put the character of Jesus in the scene before December 25th. Then, you add the Magi (the Three Kings) in early January, which corresponds to the time when they brought gifts to Christ, according to the Bible.
December 24th in the evening is the time for midnight mass.
The night of December 24th is when when Father Christmas brings presents while the children are sleeping. On the morning of December 25th, children, still in pajamas, generally rush to the Christmas tree and open their presents.
The festivities usually last for a whole week from Christmas until New Year's Eve. It's a time for every sibling, cousin, aunt, grandparent and child to visit each other at home, eat together and share gifts.
On the Christmas dinner table, you'll most likely find:
- smoked salmon
- a roasted goose with chestnuts and prunes
- the Bûche de Noël (Christmas log, or yule log)
- delicious smelly cheese!
Children learn Christmas songs at school. We sing songs at midnight mass and when opening the gifts.
Here is a selection of them:
- Handel's Messiah – a classic among great classics that you should listen to at no other time of the year except for Christmas
- Vive le vent – French version of Jingle Bells
- Petit papa Noël, by Henri Martinet
- Mon beau sapin, - French version of the German song O Tannenbaum
- Il est né le divin enfant
The French know every one of those five songs by heart. You can learn them, too!
Christmas in Alsace
Where in France will you spend your Christmas? By far, the most traditional and charming place I can recommend is Alsace. Alsace is the eastern region in France that shares its border with Germany.
Why Alsace? Why then? Because:
- It always snows at Christmas. That's right ! Alsace is an old mountain region, and the winters are always snowy there. And, because it always snows, you can always make a snowman. And, he survives for the entire week, at least.
- Alsace towns are the cutest decorated places in the whole of France (see Colmar and Strasbourg).
- It smells like cinnamon, clove, orange zest, mulled wine and cardamon in the streets.
- Families from Alsace go pluck their Christmas tree directly from the mountain.
- It's more romantic.
- It's simply the place to be!