December 15, 2023
Dear Frenchly Readers,
Many years ago now, I was living in France over Christmas. What I remember more than anything, was the way the warm smells from the bakeries wafted into the cold winter air as I walked down the cobblestone streets. I remember a black thin puffy jacket I had bought in Les Halles that cinched at the waist and had a tall collar. I also remember the piles of tiny clementine oranges at the outdoor market and the red noses of the vendors and the barrels of toasting chestnuts on every corner. My memories beyond that are a bit foggy. I think I spent the holiday mostly alone, though my roommate, Lorin, who now runs a terrific Jewish/French bakery in Davis, CA, called The Upper Crust (which, incidentally, is offering stunning holiday breads, cakes and bûche de Noël) and I might have exchanged gifts. I do remember going to mass by myself.
But it was so long ago and memory layers, like the thin translucent sheets of mica, silvery and brittle, crumbling in your hand.
What I know now about Christmas in France is perfumed by trips since, as an adult, and through the scrim of my work for Frenchly. And though this is a mosaic of lived and observed experience, I still hold French traditions in my heart almost as much as the blend of traditions I have created with my husband, Dan, for our children.
Here are some things I love about how the French celebrate the holiday:
- Many people, especially those with children, take a full two weeks off for the holiday. It’s common for the entire family to make an evening of strolling and admiring Christmas lights in the shops and town squares.
- Almost everyone goes out to their local holiday market to enjoy the twinkling lights, eat chestnuts, drink mulled wine, and buy small, thoughtful gifts.( Here’s a piece about the Strasbourg Christmas market, for example). And another that compares Strasbourg to Provence!
- There is a nefarious “Second Santa” for bad children, who will leave onions, coal, or, even worse, will whip or kidnap you. Apparently (unsurprisingly) French Gen X parents, in the last twenty or thirty years, have decided this is a little cruel, so that guy isn’t mentioned so much anymore. But this does remind me of the Dutch Santa that David Sedaris wrote about in his essay “Six to Eight Black Men.” Read it (or listen to it on that link) and you will laugh so hard you will weep.
- The French love holiday movies or TV shows (you can watch some here, too).
- The biggest meal is on Christmas Eve and is called Réveillon. People spend weeks setting up for this special dinner with many courses that stretches late into the night. After which, parents gather presents for the children and, despite feeling so tired they feel drunk, even if they are not, they, like parents everywhere, soldier on, delivering magic. The next morning, Christmas Day, is all about the kids, brunch and coffee. That sounds familiar, especially the coffee part.
- Christmas Eve is the night that the hallowed bûche de Noel (Yule log) is eaten. This is a very simple cake to make, quite frankly, and even simpler to buy. Frenchly has been publishing lists for where to find one all over the U.S., where to order one, and recipes for how to make one all week. Come to Frechly.us for all the bûche info you could ever want. (PSA: This is a very easy cake to make GF, especially the chocolate versions.)
- Because it’s a public holiday, other faiths tend to join in on the festivities to some degree or another. It’s not unusual for Muslims or or Jews to have a big family meal on Christmas when the entire country is closed and quiet. And many Muslims in France actually celebrate Christmas, interestingly enough, exchanging gifts and having a large family meal. Part of the reason for this is that the French prioritize, as a country, the family part of the whole affair, more than anything else, so it’s expected to be a family day for everyone, Christian or not.
For more inspiring and interesting ways the French celebrate the holiday, check out this list we published of Ten French Christmas Traditions, including a funny Provençal tradition where the Christmas Eve meal is followed by not one, but 13 desserts!
À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:
There’s a piece in The New Yorker this weekend about the actor, Mark Duplass, and his struggles with depression. I find it so unsettling that still, to this day, people are afraid to open up about their psychic pain. Or the pain of people they love and how that can cause pain for everyone. In some ways, a gift of Covid has been that we have started having a lot more conversations about mental health. Duplass is trying, one Instagram post at a time, to de-stigmatize depression and mental health disorders.
Frenchly has recipes for Yule logs, an essay about a mother’s coq au vin, the history of boeuf bourguignon, (which may be the perfect holiday meal as you can make it 3 days before your big dinner), mashed potatoes, holiday wines, gifts, and anything else you might need to inspire you for the perfect, tasteful, French-flavored holiday. Just forget that Second Santa!
We also have a lot of favorite French Christmas Music you can play while you cook or wrap presents…or onions.
See you next week with bubbly drinks for the holiday season.
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