6 French Christmas Traditions Part 1
December 24, 2014
It’s 6pm on December 24th. The doorbell rings and there they are! My whole family, ready to celebrate Christmas Eve. For Christians, Christmas is the moment to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but for all, it’s the moment where families get together, enjoy a delicious meal and exchange gifts. In France, we have many Christmas traditions, but here are the Top 6 and the origins of where they came from.
There is no doubt that a focal point of Christmas is…the tree. But where does this Christmas tree tradition come from? The lighting of fir trees dates back many centuries ago to when pagans would light candles on trees to chase away bad spirits. The triangular shape of fir trees was a perfect tool to illustrate the Holy Trinity and therefore used by Christians to convert all non-believers.
Ancient decorations included red apples (the predecessors of modern day bobbles) symbolizing the forbidden fruit, wafers symbolizing the Eucharist Host and a star, placed at the top of the tree, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. The Christmas tree tradition was very popular in Germany since the 16th century, but it is only during the Franco-German war of 1870 that this tradition was imported to France.
Mmm, I’m starting to get hungry! How about we all sit down and enjoy a traditional French Christmas dinner?
Here’s what’s on the menu: Foie gras, oysters or smoked salmon as a starter, a stuffed turkey as a main dish and the “bûche de Noël” cake for desert. But why are these a French tradition anyways?
The foie gras pâté was invented in the eastern region of France called Alsace in 1780. It was also imported to France during the Franco-German war in 1870. Traditionally, and by superstition, the French ate geese at this time, but when the Spanish came back from the New World with turkeys, this new type of bird became an all-time favorite.
Parisianist Fun Fact: For Europeans, the turkey looked like a guineafowl mainly found in Turkey. They called it the turkey fowl, and later on simplified it to turkey.
As for the “bûche de Noel” (or Yule Log in North America), it comes from an old tradition that consisted of putting a huge log in the fireplace during winter solstice. The log would burn for at least 3 days and wine or salt was poured on top to ensure great future harvests and chase away evil spirits. But eventually fireplaces became smaller and smaller and could therefore not hold such a big log. The tradition was thus replaced by a desert in the shape of a log.
That was delicious! Now let’s open the presents!
The tradition of exchanging gifts dates back to the 18th century and was done to honor the gift giving done by the shepherds and Wise Men to the newborn Jesus. At the time, gifts were usually food placed in the shoes of children. Today, the nature of gifts has certainly evolved!
Parisianist Tip: To get the best presents, make sure you write a letter to Santa Claus, and don’t forget to behave! But who is Santa Claus anyways? Find out in Part 2 of our French Christmas Tradition article.