As with all French traditions, the Christmas Eve meal is a stately and structured affair. No going out to eat at restaurants (since they’ll all be closed anyway). No last-minute Chinese takeout. Days of shopping and preparation go into a meal that begins, for many, after a Christmas Eve church service. Indeed the Christmas Eve meal will begin at around 8pm and often stretches until after midnight. Each course is served one after the other, with breaks in between for drinks, conversation, gift giving and small entremets. In France, this meal is called Réveillon, which literally means you stay up eating all night until…it’s time to wake up…at which point the kids pop out of bed and see what Père Noël has left them in their shoes placed by the fireplace.
In case you want to host your own Réveillon dinner, either on December 24 or on New Year’s Eve, which is also customary, here’s what several French people (currently in the midst of planning their own Réveillon dinners) recommend that you serve.
French people go all-out for their dinner parties, and Christmas especially. Grandmother’s china and the finest silver will be on the table, napkins will be folded in a fancy way, and the tasteful floral arrangements will definitely be better than last year’s.
An apéro followed by wine, followed by more wine… you get the picture. Vin chaud, or mulled wine, is not uncommon as well. And you’ll probably want to go with a white for the seafood, and a red for the meat. (Yes, there will be both.)
Réveillon is a decadent affair, so everything that’s typically saved for special occasions should be right on the docket. Huîtres, or oysters, are a classic French Christmas tradition (if you have the money to afford them), served with lemon and a shallot mignonette. In fact, seafood in general is pretty popular for the Christmas Eve meal, as it is in Italy where on Christmas Eve many celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. One common snack is toasts au saumon, which is smoked salmon and crème fraîche on crostinis. Homard (lobster) and caviar are also quite popular as appetizers or worked into the main meal. For poultry you’ve got to have La Dinde de Noel, or the Christmas turkey, which has been a tradition in France since the 19th century. But there’s also typically un chapon (capon), instead of the everyday chicken hen. Sometimes it is served stuffed with chestnuts. Though increasingly rare, game meats, like guinea fowl, have had a long tradition on the French Christmas table. For soup, there’s velouté de châtaignes, a creamy chestnut soup made with winter vegetables, whose name means “velvet.” Since this one might be a little foreign to a non-chef, Saveur has an incredible recipe here. And of course, the requisite foie gras, cheese course and salad course also have their places in the lineup.
It’s not Réveillon without a bûche de Noël, or Yule log, a delicious sponge cake coated with frosting and then rolled into a cylinder and decorated to look like a log of wood. Marrons glacés, or candied and glazed chestnuts, are also a delicacy reserved for the holidays, since they can be as much as €2.50 per chestnut. This is something you would give as a gift, so they often find their way to the table later in the evening in the flurry of ribbons and wrapping paper. Pain d’épices, or spiced bread, is a less-fancy Christmas dessert similar to gingerbread, made from rye flour, honey, and spices.
After all this is eaten and everyone is sprawled on the couches and rugs, awaiting the pitter patter of little feet coming to peek in their shoes, Christmas Day marches on with a late brunch–normally such an enormous spread that you will definitely need to make a New Year’s Resolution to go to the gym more.