By Eva Kristinova (Sciences Po Toulouse, France)
Hi everyone and happy new year! I’m back with another post, this time a little past its relevant time frame, but one that I hope you will find interesting nevertheless. I am, of course, talking about the wonderful end-of-year holiday (also my personal favourite) that has become celebrated pretty much everywhere – Christmas! Or, for those who prefer to go with the French spirit of laïcité, simply the holidays (so, belatedly, Joyeuses fêtes!).
Now, even though I was lucky enough to go home for Christmas itself, I have still been able to experience and ask about the French twist to this popular time. What is Noël like?
Let’s start with the obvious – Christmas is originally a Christian holiday, and since the religion in the French population still surpasses the 50% mark (although just barely), I think it would be fair to talk about a few of the beliefs that come along with it. Just for the sake of simplicity I will skip the ones everyone is familiar with (the birth of Jesus Christ and all that), because there are a few specific ones that are worth mentioning. Such as the French version of Santa Claus – le Père Noël, literally Father Christmas.
Just like his American counterpart, he is a figure that brings presents for good children. Originally, this came from the day of St. Nicholas on 6th December, but gradually the giving of presents was postponed to Christmas day. According to my trusted French source (thanks Flavien) whether presents are given on 24th (Christmas Eve) or 25th December pretty much varies by family. There is also the traditional midnight mass, which is observed in France more than elsewhere, at least from what I’ve heard, and Christmas carols. But these you would probably be familiar with.
With that out of the way… moving onto everyone’s favourite subject, especially during Christmas.
The traditional Christmas dinner (Réveillon) shocked me profoundly! What do you mean, no fasting, no fish?! But that might have just been my eastern Europeanness getting in the way, and in France nobody really cares, so meat it is. And a lot of it – from roast beef and duck to the usual delicacies like foie gras. Other dishes usually consist of some seafood starters, after which we cannot forget the traditional bread of varied shapes and sizes, and the whole meal finishes with, what else, cheese.
But it would be a huge mistake to forget the Bûche de Noël. In English this is called the Yule log, but I’m sorry, that does not sound nearly as appetizing. Aside from being made with chocolate, vanilla or coffee cream (what I like to call the holy trinity of French sweet food), it is a tradition in many French families to make a beta-version of this cake and decorate it together to its usual splendor before Christmas dinner. Can’t say I’ve tried one myself, but it certainly looks good.
Among my favourite practices during Christmas, and one that is just as popular in France, is the Christmas markets! This year we had them with the usual requirements (you know, masks, the infamous pass sanitaire…) but in the end nothing could really spoil the ambiance. On the menu, the usual – local products, handmade souvenirs, crêpes, warm wine. The streets and main square in Toulouse were also wonderfully lit up, and complete with huge Christmas trees (no joke, I must have seen one on almost every crossroad!) and an ice rink.
The only thing missing was the snow – but what was I expecting in the south of France 🙂