Today I’m participating in a series about Christmas around the world with my blogging friends at Multicultural Kids Blogs so it seemed a good time to tell you about how my French family celebrates.
My first French Christmas was in 1997 pre-children and pre-digital days. It was a reasonably quiet small affair compared to nowadays with another generation involved. I was so used to spending Christmases in unusual places that I don’t think I registered much about the differences then, other than the very obvious one that the big celebration is on the 24th not the 25th. (JF and I spent the Christmas before that in 1996 on the Trans-Siberian railway en route from Beijing to Moscow, somewhere in Siberia but that’s another story). In the scanned photo below you can just make out the edge of a slipper under the blue present. More on that later. We all look so young and I have no idea why JF is sporting a pig’s head (though it doesn’t surprise me either!)
French celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December, in the evening, with an enormous meal that goes on for hours – it’s called le réveillon (from the verb réveiller meaning to wake up or revive). It’s a time when families come together and feast on the best seasonal products, washed down with plenty of champagne and fine wines. Chez my MIL this starts with an apéritif of amuse-bouche (bite-sized hors d’oeuvres) with champagne usually around 8-8.30 pm. My SILs are very creative makers of apéro nibbles and they always come up with something delicious and original. While the drinks are going on some adults are busy preparing the rest of the meal, some are setting the table (always very beautifully themed and presented) and others making sure the children are having fun. It’s probably not until about 9-9.30 pm that everyone is actually gathered together toasting Christmas in the living room. Around this time more substantial finger food is brought out for the children as the main meal is still hours away and pretty late for them. This changes every year as the 5 boys get older.
Some of the family go to Mass – it’s not at midnight but it is a late service and those of us who stay at home just carry on drinking! Once everyone is back it’s time to sit down for the main meal, usually around 11 pm. This very late eating, especially for the children, is something I’m still not used to and it effectively means the kids snack on finger food and don’t really get a proper Christmas meal. While they stay in the room with us they are not actually participating in the meal and I find it odd not to eat with my children at such a special time of year. Perhaps this year it’ll be easier than the last time we were all together 3 years ago as they’re all that much older.
While on the subject of children, add into the mix that Père Noël brings his presents on the 24th BEFORE the kids go to bed. When all 5 children were younger and believed in the magic of Father Christmas this was a tricky one to pull off. They had to be distracted somewhere while the gifts were distributed, which in an open-plan house was not easy! All presents given at Christmas (by my family-in-law) are considered to be from Santa. This is in stark contrast to the English side of the family where Santa gives small fun things along with fruit and nuts in a stocking and the proper “big” presents are from whoever gives them, such as granma, uncle so and so, godparents etc. Try explaining this to a 5 year old…why he gets a tangerine from Father Christmas in England and a Lego kit from Père Noël in France….
So over the years the timing of the presents for children has changed, but once again, it’s something that’s done at a different time from the adults and personally, I like to open my gifts with my boys…maybe this year…? My younger son is the youngest child in the family and I’m not too sure if he still believes in Father Christmas. He’s hinted he’s sceptical but hasn’t come out with the actual words yet, so this year will be another test of ingenuity. I don’t want the magic to end, but it’ll certainly make giving presents with the French in-laws a lot easier when the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak. I mentioned a slipper earlier…. everybody puts a slipper out around the tree and presents are distributed in piles on top of each one. When it’s time to open the gifts you find your pile and dive on in! It’s an individual experience rather than communal which is different for me but it does make it easier with no one paying any attention if you get something you don’t like! For the adults, present opening takes place in the early hours of the morning, after dinner, often as late as 2-3 am. I’m always amazed at everybody’s stamina as I’m usually wilting by then! Some of the kids may have fallen asleep, some may still be up, but they’re busy with their new toys and not interested in the adults. (Note the crocodile slipper in the photo above and a couple of slippers on show below).
Back to the meal. In France there is no real set “Christmas dinner” such as you get in England with roast turkey and all the trimmings followed by a flaming Christmas pud. But there are certain foods which are associated with les fêtes de fin d’année (which includes New Year’s Eve too), notably foie gras. At my in-laws Christmas meals have always included piles of oysters and prawns and a huge slab of delicious smoked salmon. I have grown to love foie gras and now don’t consider it Christmas without it, but I didn’t particularly like it when I first moved to France. After the entrées of seafood and foie gras, there is a main course – often boudin blanc, a type of white sausage – followed by an impressive and delicious cheese selection, salad and finally dessert. This is traditionally a bûche de Noël (Yule log). Every course is served with a diferent wine chosen from the substantial cellar of my late father-in-law. Every so often a bottle is just too old and sadly corked but mostly we drink very fine wines and I feel very lucky to sample such impressive vintages. The emphasis of the meal is on the finest and freshest of delicious seasonal foods and appreciating them is never a rushed affair. Dinner usually takes 3-4 hours.
After the presents are all unwrapped we all stumble into bed to catch a little sleep as it’s not over yet. The festivities continue on the 25th with another amazing meal at lunchtime, hosted by one of JF’s sisters. Her husband is a boucher/charcutier/traiteur (butcher caterer professional cook) which means we are always guaranteed the most delicious meat and it is at this meal that we sometimes (though not always) have a turkey or capon. Once again, the meal follows the standard apéro, entrée, main course, cheese, salad and dessert and takes the whole afternoon. It always ends with some male adults snoozing in armchairs and kids playing with their presents. There’s absolutely no need to eat again that day (nor for a very long time, but funnily enough we do…)
So that’s how Christmas rolls with my French family. I’d love to hear from you about your festive traditions. Don’t forget if you want to find out more about Christmas around the world click here for a daily dose of festive fun, every day till the 24th. Bonnes fêtes everyone!