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French Christmas Traditions Through The Ages

Religious or not, there’s no escaping Christmas in France with its many traditions, some of which date back centuries.

As with so many things, it was the Romans who introduced Christmas customs to France with what is believed to be the first French Christmas event taking place in Reims in 496 with the baptism of Clovis and 3,000 of his warriors.  Later, in 1800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day.  The date took on both religious and secular meaning with events such as the Order of the Star which, until that particular celebration “became redundant” in 1352, was centred around the manger.  Christmas itself was not lost though and when Queen Isabeau of Bavaria arrived in 1389, the French crowds were heard to cry “Noël, Noël”!

French christmas traditions

The Tree

Intended to symbolise the tree in the Garden of Eden, the first holy tree of Christmas was presented in Strasbourg in 1605, decorated with artificial coloured roses, apples, sugar and painted decorations.  The Christmas tree is still a centrepiece of many department store windows as they compete to produce the best display, often using animated figures to attract even more attention.

Nowadays the trees feature candles and lights, stars and, once the children have fallen asleep on Christmas Eve, small toys, sweets and fruit which have been hung up by “Père de Noël” in addition to the gifts he has placed in the shoes or, more recently, stockings left by the fireplace.  Originally known as sabots, chocolate versions of these wooden shoes filled with sweets still serve as a popular reminder and special Christmas treat in certain parts of France.  Today, the tradition of leaving shoes and stockings by the fireplace or under the tree continues, in all sizes!

French christmas traditions

Mangers and Puppets

La Crèche (the manger) started as a drama in the 12th-century with the manger looking more like an altar placed inside or outside the portal of a church.  Many of the antique versions can still be seen in churches at Chartres, Nogent-le-Rotrou, Chaource and Sainte-Marie d’Oloron, as well as in museums at Orleans and Marseilles.

Shops continue to offer a wide array of these delightful scenes which are positioned prominently in the home and include terracotta figures known as Santons (little saints) together with the people of the village from the butcher to the mayor.  The centrepiece is, of course, the Manger of Bethlehem with the ox and donkey close to Jesus, with Mary and Joseph ready to welcome visitors.  Such is the popularity of the Santons that a special fair has been held in Marseilles in December every year since 1803, rivalling Aubagne, the “capital of the Santons”.

Puppet shows are also popular with many performing Marynbourg’s famous Christmas puppet play, “Bethlehem 1933”.  It is definitely not to be missed if you have chance to see it.

La Réveillon de Noël

The origins of celebrating on the 24th stem from returning from Midnight Mass.  The church or cathedral will have been beautifully lit and decorated, bells will have been rung and carols and carillons sung.  A real child will have been placed in the manger in some areas of France.  Once home, the family would open their presents and enjoy a meal together.  Depending on the region, this might include goose, turkey and chestnuts, oysters, foie gras, seafood, cheese, macarons, a Bûche Noël and chocolate with wines and champagne.

French carols have changed through the ages with the first, in the 15th-century, forming part of formal worship.  They became more rustic in the 16th-century but, by the start of the 18th, included gavotte and minuet dances.  More grandiose forms followed with Placide Cappeau’s famous 19th-century’s Minuit, Chrétiens.

These carols were performed alongside biblical scenes which evolved from simple staged events in the 14th and 15th-centuries into full-on plays based on miracles, presented as Mystères de la Nativité.  One of the most famous, Comédie de la Nativité de Jésus-Christ, was a medieval biblical “comedy” written by Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, in around 1535.

French christmas traditions

Fables and Customs

In days gone by minstrels wandered through villages with their magical stories and ancient legends such as the parable of Sower’s deception of King Herod, or the flight into Egypt.  Another is of dancers who were forced to dance for a year after their movements turned a priest’s thoughts during midnight mass, or the little homeless match girl who lit all her matches as she tried to imagine what Christmas would be like if she had a home.  Christmas being a time of miracles, a group of golden angels escorted her to Paradise as the last match was struck.

Here in France, the traditions continue today, not so much with cards and carols, but with Christmas lights, advent calendars, and the ever popular Marchés de Noël.




Source: Ministère de l’Europe et des affaires Etrangères


First published in the Nov/Dec 2021 issue of The Local Buzz

Images: Shutterstock



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