Christmas customs, originating in the Middle East, were introduced to France by the Romans. Reims was the site of the first French Christmas celebration when, in 496, Clovis and his 3,000 warriors were baptized. Bishop Rémi had purposely chosen the day of the Nativity for this ceremony. Other important events eventually took place on Christmas day in the following years.
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. Later, King Jean-le-Bon founded the Order of the Star in honor of the manger; it remained in existence until 1352. In 1389, French crowds shouted Noël! Noël! in welcoming Queen Isabeau of Bavaria to the capital.
Thus Christmas gradually became both a religious and secular celebration which, in fact, until the end of the Middle Ages, was confused with the celebration of the new year. Today, Christmas in France is a family holiday, a religious celebration and an occasion for merrymaking. It is a time welcomed by both adults and children.
The fir tree was first presented as the holy tree of Christmas in the French city of Strasbourg in 1605. It was decorated with artificial colored roses, apples, sugar and painted hosts, and symbolized the tree in the garden of Eden.
In France, 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.
Family celebrations begin with the decoration of the Christmas tree a few days before Christmas; candles and lights, tinsel and many colored stars are attached to it. 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 has left in the shoes before the fireplace.
Another custom is that of the manger, "la crèche," which originated in 12th century France in the form of liturgical drama. At first the manger itself resembled an alter and was placed either inside the church or before the portal, as it was at the Abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire. Antique mangers can be seen in churches at Chartres, Chaource, Nogent-le-Rotrou, Sainte-Marie d'Oloron and in museums at Marseilles and Orleans.
The popular manger was introduced in Avignon by the family of Saint Francis of Assisi between 1316 and 1334, but it was not until the 16th century that the making of crèches or grebbes, as they were called in old French, became a widespread custom.
Today, the family arranges a manger on a small stage in a prominent part of the house. In Provence, the children bring rocks, branches and moss to make a setting for the manger. 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. In the stable is a reproduction of the legendary manger of Bethlehem, with the ox and the donkey placed close to Jesus, and Mary and Joseph in the foreground welcoming the visitors.
Since 1803, a special fair for the sale of the santons has been held in Marseilles during the month of December, but the true capital of the world of santons is the little town of Aubagne.
Puppet shows are also given every year for Christmas, especially in Paris and in Lyon. One of the most famous Christmas puppet plays, written by de Marynbourg, is called "Bethlehem 1933" and is a masterpiece of popular art.
At midnight everyone attends the 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.
When the family returns home after midnight mass, there is a late supper known as "le réveillon." The meal varies according to the region of France. In Alsace, for example, the traditional goose is brought in on a platter and given the place of honor on the table. Bretons serve buckwheat cakes with sour cream. Turkey and chestnuts are served in Burgundy. The favorite dishes of Paris and the Ile-de-France region are oysters, foie gras, and the traditional cake in the form of a Yule log or "bûche de Noël" which used to burn on the hearth on Christmas Eve. The wines served are generally Muscadet, Anjou, Sauterne and Champagne.
Ordinarily, young children do not attend midnight mass with their parents, but go to bed early to dream of their Christmas gifts. Before going to bed, they put their shoes by the fireside for a gift from "le père de Noël" or "le petit Jésus." 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. However, the sabots are not forgotten - chocolate wooden shoes are made by pastry shops and filled with candies.
Traditional legends and beliefs associated with Christmas are numerous in France. Alsace is a region where a lot of tradition exists such as marchés de Noel, Christmas markets. This region has possibly the greatest community spirit. In some towns, shepherds offer a lamb on Christmas Eve, while in others the réveillonis held in the snow mountains or a song festival precedes the midnight mass. In the small village of Solliesville, the whole population gathers bringing bread, meat and candies as a symbol of the apostles. Then a supper is offered to the important townspeople and their guests. During the mass, the characters of the manger are portrayed by people from the village.
The magic of Christmas is the magic of the Orient. During the Middle Ages, minstrels wandered through villages and towns, telling "Marveiles qui advinrent en la Sainte Nuit," the legend of the flight into Egypt, or the legend of the sower who, when asked which way the Holy Family had gone, deceived King Herod. Legends told around the fire on Christmas Eve are nearly all forgotten; but some of them have been transformed into fairy tales or fantasies. One story is that of the dancers condemned to dance incessantly for a year because their movements had turned the priest's thoughts during the midnight mass. Another such tale is the charming story of the little homeless matchgirl who, sitting in the snow on the sidewalk, struck all her matches in order to imagine what Christmas would be like in a house; but Christmas is a time of miracles and at the striking of the last match the little girl was conveyed to Paradise by shining golden angels.
Holiday Traditions in France
Video by Darrin Rigotti