France – A European Christmas Story

Merry Christmas in French is known as Joyeux Noël

In many parts of eastern and northern France the Christmas festivities start on December the 6th this is known as St Nicholas day.

On the eve of December 5th children place their shoes at the entrance of their house, they also leave carrots and sugar lumps for St Nicholas donkey. It is hoped that St Nicholas will bring treats during the night and fill their shoes.

The story goes that once upon a time, three children got lost in the woods and were kidnapped by a wicker butcher. The children were rescued by St Nicholas and returned to their parents and so was known as the protector of children. Another name for him is Santa Claus.

There is also a scary character called le Père Fouettard. He is the wicked butcher who kidnapped the children. Often people will play out these stories, with the wicked butcher dressed in black, carrying a whip and looking menacing. St Nicholas wears the traditional long red coat often associated with Santa Claus. The children will sing traditional songs of the three children’s adventures and eat gingerbread characters of St Nicholas.

On the 8th December many parts of France will celebrate with a light festival known as la Fête des Lumières this means the festival of lights. This is a four-day festival to celebrate the Virgin Mary. During this time there are amazing light shows throughout the town with many of these light shows illuminating local buildings. 

In France, it is the tradition to eat a special dinner late at night on Christmas Eve.  However, in the region of Provence, it is referred to as the big supper, it is eaten before going to midnight mass.

After the main meal it is tradition to serve thirteen desserts on Christmas eve. The number 13 represents Jesus and his disciples. These desserts will stay on the table for three days for people to enjoy.

Two of the thirteen dishes are a type of flat bread with olive oil and flavoured with aniseed, orange or lemon.

Another dessert is a nougatwhich is served in two colours:white and black.

Other items that are traditionally included are: apples, pears, green melon, grapes, dates, candied fruit, fruit pastilles, diamond-shaped sweets, foil-wrapped chocolates and mulled wine.  

A personal story:

by Marie.

Christmas Past

I was born in France to French parents and lived in France till around the age of six. As a child I remember my upbringing and the Christmas’s spent in France being a very important festival. My parents moved to an island in the British Isles and our Christmas’s continued very much the same. I recall my sister and I attending midnight mass at the French church with our mother as she was a devout Catholic. Christmas eve was always a late affair and we would go after our Christmas Eve dinner which is called ‘le réveillon de Noël’. This was normally a beautiful meal and well prepared as my father had been a chef.

My parents were migrants who were good people who worked very hard but we were not very well off so there was no money to buy lavish things. I remember we did not have running water in the house and having to use a tap in the hall outside. At Christmas I recall goose or roast beef other, fish and scallops which are coquilles saint Jacques, beautiful creamy rice pudding and cakes. I remember my dad would often prepare a pineapple with spun sugar too. The food was always good.

I remember my sister and I receiving gifts such as a clementine and chocolate. But one year both my sister and I received a red radio each, we were so excited.

I also recall a purchase of dried raisins that were in a triangle wooden box with images of sun and vines on the packaging, an image that has always remained with me. We didn’t have much but as sisters we were lucky we had each other.

Christmas day was a family day normally my mum, dad and sister. We had an aunt, uncle and a couple of cousins who we saw over the coming days.

At Christmas our father would sing us a song called ‘Petit Papa Noel’ https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=WQushjP2Wqk which translates as ‘little Father Christmas’, I can still get quite emotional now thinking about that song. ( I’ve added the lyrics at the end) We would also visit the manger in the square, it was a time to remember loved ones.

Christmas trees and mistletoe are very popular in France and I remember poinsettia plants everywhere. Mistletoe is considered to bring hope for the coming year. In France it was not the custom to send Christmas cards, but New Year cards were sent instead as a symbol of hope for the coming year.

I still remember the local postman would sell calendars that were published by the post office. These calendars were for the coming year and I have fond memories of my grandmother buying “l’Almanach du facteur”. Something that still happens today.

 ‘Petit Papa Noel’ by Tina Rossi from 1946 (original) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=WQushjP2Wqk

Petit Papa Noël – French Lyrics and English Translation

Chorus / Refrain

Petit papa Noël
Quand tu descendras du ciel
Avec des jouets par milliers
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier.
Mais avant de partir
Il faudra bien te couvrir
Dehors tu vas avoir si froid
C’est un peu à cause de moi.

Little Santa Claus
When you come down from the sky
With thousands of toys
Don’t forget my little stocking.
But before you leave
You should dress well
Outside you will be so cold
And it’s kind of my fault.

—-

C’est la belle nuit de Noel
La neige étend son manteau blanc
Et les yeux levés vers le ciel
A genoux, les petits enfants
Avant de fermer les paupières
Font une dernière prière.

It’s the beautiful Christmas night
The snow spreads its white coat
And their eyes raised towards the sky
On their knees, the little children
Before closing their eyelids
Address a last prayer

Refrain

Le marchand de sable est passéLes enfants vont faire dodoEt tu vas pouvoir commencerAvec ta hotte sur le dosAu son des cloches des églisesTa distribution de surprises.

The sandman has passed
The children are going to sleep
And you will be able to begin,
With your sack on your back,
To the sound of church bells,
Your distribution of surprises.

Refrain

Il me tarde que le jour se lève
Pour voir si tu m’as apporté
Tous les beaux joujoux que je vois en rêve
Et que je t’ai commandés. 

I can’t wait for sunrise
To see if you brought me
All the lovely toys that I see in my dreams

And that I ordered from you.

Refrain

Et quand tu seras sur ton beau nuage
Viens d’abord sur notre maison
Je n’ai pas été tous les jours très sage
Mais j’en demande pardon.

And when you are on your beautiful cloud
Come first to our house
I wasn’t always very good
But I ask for your forgiveness.

Refrain

Memories of childhood with my parents and sister.

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