Monday, 28 December 2015

First Christmas in France

Nativity (although I appear to have cut out the most important character!)
 Strange as it seems after 8 years in France and 5 in a relationship with a Frenchie, 2016 was the first year I spent Christmas in France. For the past two years, we've done Christmas with my family and new year with his, and before that we each spent Christmas with our own families and new year with each other.

I was looking forward to it, partly because I like spending time with Understanding Frenchman's parents, who are really good fun, but also because I'm a bit of a sucker for Christmas, and UFM has young nieces and nephews, which meant that fun and excitement were guaranteed. (In my family, we all tend to do our own thing in the morning, then at some point in the afternoon, or even after dinner, someone says, without wanting to sound too uncool and enthusiastic, "Well, shall we open the presents then?" (Christmas dinner is great though - my mum is a good cook!))

In France, the big Christmas meal traditionally takes place on the 24th. We were already in Brittany, and at the end of the afternoon UFM's brother, sister-in-law and their two kids arrived. The children were already wearing Santa hats, which was a good start to the proceedings. Then his sister and her little boy came over, and we chatted and played silly games with the kids.

They went back home in the evening, as the sister's partner also has three teenage children and it would have been a bit much to have everybody. Around 7 or 8 pm, we started with the apéritif. This was followed by foie gras, scallops in sauce, capon and roast potatoes with vegetables, then the traditional chocolate log for dessert.

French Santa passes by around midnight to drop off the presents, and sometimes the children stay up for his arrival, but this year their parents decided that they would go to bed and open their presents in the morning, which they did with remarkably little fuss. (To be fair, the 6 year-old went around 11pm and the 9 year-old at nearly midnight, so maybe fatigue just won over excitement!)

In the morning, the 6 year-old was up early, but this was in fact because he was looking forward to walking the dog with his papi, and it was around ten-thirty before the presents were opened in a big storm of gift wrap and excitement. The younger one still believes in Father Christmas, and in France Santa brings all the presents (although strangely enough he leaves different ones in different houses, for example, some at home and some with each set of grandparents ...) so as the children handed out the gifts, we all said, "Merci, Père-Noël!" The 9 year-old has known for a while that he isn't real, but she likes being in on the secret and is very discreet so that her brother doesn't find out.

After that, we did more presents with UFM's sister and other nephew, then sat down for Christmas lunch. I believe that in some families this is a whole other event, but we just ate the leftovers from the day before, so although there was a lot of food, le réveillon was definitely the more special of the two meals.

In the afternoon we went for a walk up to the local church to look at the nativity scene, then it was time for the children to go home,  and peace reigned again.

In retrospect, what surprised me about French Christmas was how, apart from the presents, it felt very similar to any other family celebration. In general I would say that the French are better at celebratory meals than the British are - traditions like the apéritif, having lots of different wines and spending a long time over each course mean that special occasion meals really do feel like an event. But I think that in the UK, even in my family, where Christmas is pretty low-key, we have lots of things which are specific to the 25th December. For example, although we're not all regular church-goers, we often go to the midnight service, and then there are fun things like crackers and foods like Christmas pudding (which I actually don't like, so that was no big regret.) French Christmas, on the other hand, was very similar to French new year but with Santa Claus. But fun, neverthless!


  1. Will you be having a galette des rois on the 6th too? I can't believe a 6 year old manage to hold off on present opening until 10:30!!!

    1. Hehe, they do say that French children are taught self-control from a very early age! I will no doubt be eating galttte des rois on the 6th, and many other days in January too, because it seems that everywhere you go, it's all people can think of to eat. Luckily, I love frangipane :-)

  2. I miss the galette :-( I love it!

    I think French are good at celebrating whatever "en famille", and each family has its traditions. North American do public celebrations best, though.

  3. My observations as an American are similar to yours-- my first Christmas in France, I was struck by how it revolved around meals. We prepared the meal, ate it, and discussed what we ate afterwards. Rinse, repeat. I enjoyed it.

    In the States, we eat a meal, but it is not necessarily the most important part of the holiday, nor does it have the most traditions associated with it. There aren't as many traditional holiday dishes as in France. Other holiday traditions are just as or more important as the meal, like decorating the tree, when you open gifts (each family seems to have their own tradition), going to Mass, etc.

  4. My experiences have been similar in that French Christmas is a lot like any other big family event, just with presents. We had a "problem" in that not everyone could be there on the 25th, so some presents were opened early, but then they couldn't be from Santa (they became early birthday presents for a birthday on the 29th) and I no one picked up my suggestion that the presents just be from grandma and grandpa and aunt and uncle, etc.

  5. I totally felt the same about French Christmas being like all other events! There weren't as many Christmas-only special traditions like we have with my family back home in the States. Plus, I prefer the legend of Santa Claus to that of Père Noel.