Celebrating Christmas à la Parisienne
November 05, 2019
Brimming with the festive spirit, Christmas in Paris is both memorable and magical. Visiting the enticing Christmas markets… attending a midnight mass in a stunning Gothic cathedral lit with candles and filled with the sounds of carols and hymns… enjoying the Réveillon feast… these are just a few things to experience in Paris.
For the French, Christmas is a time for family reunions and a time to give to the less fortunate. Family celebrations begin with the decoration of the Christmas tree a few days before Christmas. Candles, lights, tinsel and colored stars are attached to the Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve when the children are asleep, little toys, candies and fruits are hung on the branches of the tree as a supplement to the gifts Santa Claus will bring.
Nearly every French home at Christmas time displays a Nativity scene or crèche, which serves as the focus of the Christmas celebration. Little terra-cotta figures, known as santons or little saints, are grouped around the manger to represent the Holy Family, the other characters of the story of the Nativity, and the people of the village: the mayor, the priest, the policeman, the butcher, the baker, the miller, the farmer… An extensive tradition has evolved around these little figures which are made by craftsmen in the south of France throughout the year. The craftsmanship involved is quite astounding and the molds have been passed from generation to generation since the seventeenth century.
As it approaches midnight on Christmas Eve, many make their way to Christmas mass. Churches and cathedrals, large and small, are magnificently lit and echo the joyful melodies of carols, bells and carillons. Many churches have a crèche or manger. Formerly, in certain regions, a real infant was placed on the hay of the manger during the mass but this custom is no longer observed.
Most would be sleepy after such a late night, but not the French! Celebrations have just begun. After mass, there is a late supper known as Le Réveillon – a symbolic awakening of Christ’s birth and it is the culinary high point of the season, which may be enjoyed at home or in a restaurant or café open all night. The meal varies according to region. But the favorite dishes of Paris are oysters, foie gras, and the traditional cake, Bûche de Noël – a rich butter, cream-filled cake shaped and frosted to look like a Yule Log. Many households leave a candle burning according to the Christian belief that the Virgin Mary passes through giving her blessing.
Ordinarily, young children do not attend midnight mass with their parents, but rather go to bed early in eager anticipation of their Christmas gifts. Before going to bed however, contrary to the familiar tradition of hanging up stockings by the chimney, French children put their shoes out by the fireside for a gift from Santa Claus or the Little Jesus. Formerly, peasants’ wooden shoes, called sabots, were often used at Christmas time, but today, shoes of any kind are set before the fireplace or around the tree. But the sabots are not forgotten! Chocolate wooden shoes are made by pastry shops and filled with candy. However, not all children will receive candy and gifts Christmas morning, Père Fouettard (Father Spanker) who gives out spankings to the children who have been naughty throughout the year, is as much alive and true to the French children as is Santa Claus himself.
During the holidays, shop windows of big department stores, principally in Paris, compete with one another in fabulous displays of animated figures. A day spent visiting and comparing the exhibits is practically a must for parents and children alike. Puppet shows are another Christmas tradition children look forward to every year, especially in the capital. One of the most famous Christmas puppet plays, written by de Marynbourg, is called Bethlehem 1933 and is a masterpiece of popular art.
There’s hardly a more magical time in Paris than this time of year. So if you’re looking for a unique experience filled with a wide array of dazzling sights and sounds, culinary delights and authentic traditions, then celebrate the joys of Christmas in Paris.