Le réveillon is the evening before Christmas (Christmas Eve) and the evening before New Year’s Day (New Year’s Eve). In both instances the evening is a celebration involving a gathering of family and/or friends and a celebratory meal. The term derives from the word reveil meaning wake up, as in both cases it’s necessary to stay awake late into the night to celebrate.
Let’s look at the réveillon de noël first:
Le réveillon de noël is on the 24th December. While Christmas Eve in English refers to the whole day, le réveillon is only the evening. Families gather together to prepare and eat a feast of fine food, and swap gifts. The 24th is the main date for Christmas celebrations in France, like many European countries, so as well as eating and drinking, gifts are given. These may be from Père Noël (Father Christmas) or individuals depending on the family’s beliefs/traditions. This usually takes place late at night after the meal.
The réveillon meal can only be described as a feast and usually lasts hours. It begins with an apéritif consisting of an assortment of finger food accompanied by champagne. While the finger food can be as simple as nuts and crisps, this is usually the occasion to prepare something more impressive, like verrines (individual glasses filled with a cream, mousse, soufflé etc), puff pastry bites, mini quiches, canapés, savoury cakes, dips, mini pizzas etc. I’m always impressed by the creativity and originality of what my sisters-in-law produce – always homemade, always delicious.
After the aperitif comes the meal proper, which is a sit-down affair with many courses of fine food. Typically this will include foie gras served with pain d’épices (a spicy bread) or brioche, and chutney (fig or onion are popular). Oysters and a selection of other seafood – whelks, shrimps, crab, lobster. Smoked salmon, scallops and snails are popular too.
These are all served as entrées before the main course which is usually a fine piece of meat, often turkey with chestnuts, or boudin blanc aux truffes (white sausages with truffles). Potatoes and vegetables may accompany the meat.
After the main course there will be cheese, usually a selection of at least 4 or 5 including at least one hard cheese, one soft, one goat’s cheese and one blue. And finally there’s dessert which is traditionally a bûche de noël – yule log. Find out all about the bûche de noël here.
The meal is washed down with a variety of fine wines, from different regions to accompany different dishes, red, white and sweet wine. The only other drink for adults will be water: (hopefully) tap water served in a carafe and possibly some sparkling water. Many of the well-known brands of mineral water release a specially decorated Christmas bottle of sparkling water at this time of year, in glass, which is just about the only time I’ll buy bottled water. Typically children in France drink water with meals, but for this special occasion they might have soft drinks or juice or a “kiddie’s champagne” called Champomy, packaged to look like champagne but actually fizzy apple juice.
After dessert digestifs (strong spirits) are usually served, along with coffee, dates, nuts, chocolates and other sweet treats. These digestifs are frequently homemade and local to the area. My family-in-law is from Lorraine where Mirabelle is popular and traditional (a type of plum spirit). In the Côte d’Azur this is likely to be Limoncello (lemon liqueur) and in Normandy Calvados is the local tipple (apple brandy).
These are just examples and there may be all sorts of different spirits on offer, or none at all! Chez my in-laws Mirabelle is served in the coffee cup you’ve drunk your coffee from (which is always a small shot of black coffee, definitely no milk), the idea being the cup is warm which releases the fruity aromas. Of course if you don’t want a coffee you can still have a digestif, in a glass!
France is made up of many different regions with strong local traditions which may play an important part in the réveillon celebrations, for example the 13 desserts served in Provence (which I have written about in detail here.) I am simply providing an overview of general traditions as experienced by me and my family and friends.
A word about the table…it is always beautifully decorated with a special tablecloth and ornaments, candles and the best crockery, glassware and cutlery. The French have a phrase for this which illustrates how seriously it’s taken and how important it is “l’art de la table” – table art. My sisters-in-law are experts at l’art de la table, coming up with new themes every year.
The réveillon meal is copious and sociable, accompanied by chat and laughter and sometimes even little skits or music performances. And it is L.O.N.G. My experience with my in-laws is that it is rarely less than 3 hours and often 4 or more hours long. And that’s just the sitting down bit. If you count the aperitif before then it can be 5 or more. For example, aperitif from around 8-9 pm, then at the table from 9 – midnight but often 1-2 am.
The tree, gifts and Mass:
While le réveillon is hugely about the meal, it is also the time to give presents around the Christmas tree. Every family will have their own traditions, but however they do it, somewhere in this long, late evening presents are opened. In my family-in-law this happens after the meal! This has meant that some years we’ve been opening presents around the tree after 1 am. If Père Noël is involved, with young children who still believe, this can get very complicated. They have to be distracted somewhere else in the house while adults distribute the gifts. The evening is definitely easier with older kids!
And one final part of the réveillon for many families is Midnight Mass. Somehow this has to fit into the evening too. It is not something I have experienced but it is traditional and many people in France will go to church on the 24th, even if it is just about the only time they go during the year.
Le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre or le réveillon du 31:
This is le réveillon for New Year’s Eve, known formally as the réveillon de la St Sylvestre but more commonly referred to as le réveillon du 31. Restaurants will advertise their menus for … St Sylvestre but individuals don’t talk about it. If you are inviting someone to celebrate New Year’s Eve with you, and it’s before the Christmas réveillon so you need to distinguish which one you’re talking about you’d say réveillon du 31. If, however, Christmas has passed then you’d just say le réveillon.
This is basically a New Year’s Eve celebration and has few traditions. While the 24th is all about family, the 31st is often spent with friends. This may be a small gathering of just 2 couples and a good meal, or a full-blown party with all your friends, or anything in between. Children are always invited and stay up well past midnight from a very young age. When it’s a sizable gathering everyone brings a plate of food to add to the buffet “pot luck” style.
In the 20+ years I’ve been in France, I’ve experienced them all. What I can say is that the French know how to party. We’ve rarely been to bed before 3-4 am having danced for hours (even when just 4 of us!)
Have you experienced a réveillon in France? How is Christmas celebrated where you live? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Over the years I’ve written plenty about Christmas in France, you may like the following posts:
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