Reims was the site of the first French Christmas celebration when, in 496, Clovis and his 3,000 warriors were baptized. Charlemagne received the crown from the hands of Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800. In 1100, Godefroy de Bouillon’s successor, his brother Baudouin, was crowned in the basilica of Saint Mary of Bethlehem. Le grand calendrice et compost de bergers, first published in 1491 and constantly reedited during the next 300 years, is the best way of knowing how medieval French people lived out the different months and seasons. The pages of December enumerate the saints’ days and shows something similar to the boar feasts in England. (see December 9).
As we will find with the medieval celebrations of Christmas, in some French regions, Epiphany continues to be an important part of the holidays, and in other regions, the Christmas season begins on December 6th, the feast of St Nicholas. In some places, Christmas could start as early as December 4th, the date of the feast of St Barbara, when wheat and lentil seeds from the harvest were taken indoors and left to germinate in the warmth of the kitchen, to predict what the coming year had in store.
In Alsace and Périgord, Noël begins in early December and continues through Epiphany. In Provence, Normandy and Berry, it lasts from Noël to Candelmas (February 2nd; see Christmas Banned (December 11)). In Lyon, December 8th is the fête des lumières when the Lyonnais pay homage to the virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows to light up the city. Regionally, Christmas is known by different names, too, Chalende in Dauphiné, Calendo in Provence, Nadal (from dies natalis) in Languedoc, Nedeleg in Brittany (which is very close to the Welsh Nadolig). The time is also known as “nuits des Merveilles” (nights of miracles) or, in Provence, fête calendale, which according to Mistral is the name for the pre-Christian January festival from the area.
Noël is for Children
In France, as I learned very early on as a French student, instead of stockings, children put their shoes out on Christmas Eve for Père Noël to fill with toys and treats. (There is a legend that the tradition of a child receiving a tangerine in a stocking is from 12th century French nuns who left socks full of fruit, nuts, and tangerines at the houses of the poor.) In researching, I came across Le Noël du Petit Ramoneur, a series of 6 postcards telling a story from early 20th century Nancy. It shows a stunted, dirty peasant child’s disappointment when no one leaves him presents in his wooden shoes, left out by the hearth. It’s quite heart-breaking and I have no idea why anyone would want to buy the postcards! In 1962, a law was passed in France decreeing that all letters written to Santa would receive a response via a postcard.
It may be surprising to note that there were many other regional figures in French lore who were snuffed out when Père Noël became used universally. These included St Martin in the Dunkirk area, Père Janvier (Father January) in Bourgagne, Aunt Arie, lady of Noel, crowned by diamonds, in Jura, and Christkindel, represented by a young woman veiled in white, crowned in evergreen and lit candles, who comes from St Lucia, whose feast day is December 23rd. Nevertheless, patronage of Père Noël is longstanding; in Strasbourg at the end of the Middle Ages, children were leaving out spiced cake and wine for Père Noël when he visited. Of course, in France, too, they have Père Fouettard, the dark demon figure who parades around with St Nicholas on December 6th, punishing naughty children while Père Noël rewards the good children (Père Fouettard is so-called because he brandishes a bunch of sticks, which hopefully he no longer uses!). Hans Trapp in Alsace is another variation of this figure, who comes from the folk memory of Han von Throtha, a tyrannical and child-hating horseman from the 15th century.
Good Christians, Awake!
Le Réveillon is the huge meal which greets French Catholics after their return from Midnight Mass. As the name suggests, it refers to an awakening, the awakening of the faithful after Christ’s birth, and also refers to the fact participants must stay awake ‘til at least past midnight! At midnight, in any case, it’s traditional to greet everyone with a “joyeux Noël!” The fare varies from region to region. The tradition in Provence was to provide an immaculate white tablecloth as well as three successively smaller napkins for each diner; these were meant to represent the Trinity and the custom dated from before 1683. The master and mistress of the house made cheese soup in Auvergne, and each had a candle that had to be kept burning through the whole meal (see the Yule log). In southern France, this was known as “gros souper” where the meal would be prepared with celery salad and fruit tarts. In many parts of France, Christmas réveillon was traditionally pork—sausages in Normandy, Brittany, and the Auvergne; in Limousin, a pork soup with cabbage; in Gascogne, tripe and corn cakes. Traditionally, only in the southwest were beef or geese/ducks eaten. In Brittany, buckwheat pancakes and sour cream might be the main dish. In Paris and the Île-de-France, it’s oysters.
In Provence, the tradition is the thirteen desserts of Provence, meant to reflect the twelve disciples and Christ at the Last Supper. There, the main dishes are not particularly rich, with a great deal of vegetables, from spinach to celery to artichoke to spring onions. The exact combination varies from town to town in France, but centers around four: nuts (symbolic of the Augustinians); dried figs (symbolic of the Franciscans); almonds (symbolic of the Carmelites); and dried raisins (symbolic of the Dominicans). Also there might be white and dark nougat (made with honey and almonds), dates (sometimes arranged in green or pink marzipan), calissons d’Aix (a sweet from Aix-en-Provence), quince-marzipan or jam, Christmas melon, oranges, clementines or mandarins, pears, apples, or prunes. Or perhaps even a milk-based cake or le Cachat (a sharp white cheese).
On the evening of December 24th, the Vigil of the Nativity, presumably before going to midnight Mass, the family might partake of fish (in Brittany, cod) or roasted chestnuts, crêpes, or waffles in the Côte-d’Or; white or red wine followed by chocolate; or soup (of cherries in Alsace, pasta in Dauphiné, or oysters and snails in Charente).
One Christmas Eve tradition is that of chopping 6 onions in half, laying them out with a pinch of salt and depending on where the salt falls, the months will be wet or dry. Also, it is traditional to leave a candle burning after Réveillon in case the Virgin Mary passes by. Here is one story of why you should not try to overhear the talking animals on Christmas Eve. It concerns a stable full of French animals and their master on Christmas Eve, who was listening surreptitiously to them. One bull said to the other, “What are we doing tomorrow?” The other replied: “We’re bringing our master to be interred.” The master got so scared he died on the spot, and the bulls fulfilled their own prophecy.
Bûche de Noël
Speaking of the Yule log, this is the culinary version, which I know you can get at Le Chantilly bakery in Albuquerque. The original bûche de Noël, the actual log for burning, was also known as souco or tranco in the Auvergne, the tisou in Confoltenais, ceppo in Corsica, and the cacho-fio in Provence. According to the celebrated Provençal poet Mistral, the name comes from dialect, cacho fio meaning to “light the fire,” or cacha fio, meaning to “extinguish the fire.” It had to be cut in half on its way into the house and in some places cut into as many pieces as there were residents in the household. As far back as 1683 there was written evidence of the benediction, the semi-religious process of putting the cacho-fio on the fire. Mistral noted down in 1920 a childhood song that was sung as the Yule log was chosen and burnt, the most-well known and oldest rite, already recorded in 1597:
Mes beaux enfants que Dieu nous réjouisse!
Avec Noël, tout bien vient:
Dieu nous fasse la grâce de voir l’année prochaine
Et sinon plus nombreux puissions nous n’y être pas moins.
(Translation: Elation! Elation!
My dear children, God rejoices with us!
Here’s Noël, all will be well:
God will allow us to see next year
And we will better off than before.)
Another version from Vaucluse goes:
Tison, bémis toutes les personnes de la maison.
Adieu, Eve. Adieu,
Que Dieu nous assure une bonne année.