The big day is nearly upon us. We cannot wait. We have decorations ornately on show, Christmas gifts have been purchased, the tree is up and the cards have been sent. For many, Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, bringing friends and family closer. As you can imagine, there is a lot of emphasis on the food and there are many charming traditions that French families partake in. Here is a very brief snapshot of what Christmas is like for a typical French family.
Whether you live in France or are holidaying over the festive period, attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve is an incredibly popular ritual. Many attend with their children (leaving someone behind to play the magical role of Père Noël). Le réveillon de Noël refers to the late party of Christmas Eve and is a supper that is served after midnight mass. Those with younger children would tend to eat before mass at midnight. Christmas Eve, as in many Catholic countries is the main day celebrated over the Christmas period and both adults and children will open their presents on 24 December.
Children leave a pair of shoes by their fireplace (or front door if they don’t have one) as they leave for midnight mass. When they return their little shoes will be filled with sweets and gifts magically placed there by Père Noël.
Nearly every French home will display a nativity scene and the figures will have been passed down from generation to generation. You can buy your very own nativity scene from some of the stalls at France’s Christmas markets.
French Christmas Food
As you would expect, there are a number of regional culinary delicacies, which have their own take on a traditional Christmas menu.
On arrival guests might be greeted by a glass of Kir Royale, followed by sumptuous canapés such as blinis topped with caviar or foie gras served on a crostini.
Once sat around the table, an impressive fruit de mer is served. Quite the showstopper, a large seafood platter is placed in the middle of the table and will be full of raw and cooked shellfish including smoked salmon, prawns, mussels and oysters. Accompanied by a crisp white wine such as Chablis or Muscadet – the perfect friends to fish and seafood- the feast certainly starts in style. A lot of French families will also serve escargot, snails cooked in garlic butter with baskets of French bread to soak up the butter.
Often, it is traditional for one of the members of the families joining the host to bring a dish that is unique to their own region of France. Whether it is a type of cheese, cured meat, wine or perhaps the mustard, their contribution is added to the extensive meal. The kitchen is always the central hub to any French gathering and at Christmas the oven certainly works over time roasting many different types of meat from goose, capon (a large chicken) turkey stuffed with chestnuts, guinea fowl and even lamb.
Turkey is rarely served as the only meat on offer, a choice of red meat will also be presented and vegetables such as buttered green beans finished with garlic, sautéed potatoes and courgettes will join the party. As you can imagine, being in France you will be well and truly spoilt for the choice of wine that is on offer. With this particular type of meal, think of a good robust red wine – a classic Bordeaux immediately springs to mind… simply divine.
Salade et fromage
Following that huge plate of traditional fayre, the French like to serve a green salad follow by an assortment of cheeses. A cheese board will likely include a goat’s cheese and several regional soft and hard cow’s milk cheeses. The cheeses will have been out of the fridge for several hours so they are served at room temperature with the softer cheese suitably runny.
For those with a sweet tooth, the pièce de résistance is La bûche de Noël or Yule log, a butter cream cake in the shape of a log. The dessert can be bought in patisseries or if the host is feeling particularly creative, they are easy to make and children can add their own festive flair by topping it with homemade edible Christmas trees, snowmen and holly. Dusted with some icing sugar and served with a good Cognac, or Calvados if you are in Normandy.
So what’s more to say other than Joyeux Noel and bon appetit!