French Culture Awareness #1: Christmas in France
'Tis the season again! Time for chocolates, red hats, ugly sweaters and buying gifts for everyone you love. Yes, I am indeed talking about Christmas time! Christmas is celebrated differently in France and in the UK. Let's go through the main activities in France.
1- When we actually celebrate Christmas.
In France, we celebrate Christmas on the ... 24th! We don't actually do it on the 25th, on Christmas day, but we do it on Christmas Eve, which is on the 24th. Some people work on the 24th but they would usually finish a bit early so they can have time to prepare everything for dinner and get ready for guests. We celebrate Christmas with our families and, if you are a kid or if you are single it is usually quite easy as you celebrate it with your parents or grandparents. If you have a partner, it can get a bit more complicated as you have to decide where you go on which date if you want to stay together to celebrate Christmas.
Some couples decide to celebrate Christmas separately so it is easier for them to spend time with their family. But if you want to spend Christmas with your partner and their family, you will need to check if you go to your parents' on the 24th or 25th and if you go to your in-laws' on the 24th or 25th... If you have a big family and your siblings are married too it can lead to complications very easily! Bonus is: you get to have two Christmases instead of just one! If you only celebrate Christmas on the 24th, we don't do much on the 25th - some people might stay home and enjoy the gifts they received the day before, others might go and visit extended family for a coffee and a quick bite. If you get to have two Christmases, you get to stuff your face with another Christmas meal on the 25th! It might sound great but it's actually tiring and you're still full from the day before so you don't enjoy the food on the 25th as much as on the 24th. For me, it will be dinner with my husband's family on the 24th and lunch with my family on the 25th. Wish our stomachs good luck!
2 - What do we eat.
So, as you might already know, French food is one of the best in the world (come on, you know it's true!). As you can imagine, we go all out for Christmas but we do have our favourites. Christmas meal will usually include the following: apéritif (pre-dinner drinks), entrée 1 (seafood), entrée 2 (charcuterie), trou normand, main meal, cheese, dessert, coffee and chocolates. Yes, you read that right. Yes we do it every year. Yes it is just as amazing as it sounds. Let's have a closer look:
Apéritif: This one, I'm sure you already know. We have apéritif pretty much anytime - it can be at the weekend, before any important meals, when eating out with friends... We even have what we call "apéro-dinatoire" which is basically a big apéritif so you don't eat anything else after it. Apéritif is a huge part of French meals so it's normal to have one for Christmas. We start with a glass of liquor or sparkling wine (Martini, Porto, Rhum, Pastis, Champagne...) and some nibbles. For Christmas, we will have canapés and petits-fours such as cheese bites or small sausages, crakers and savoury sandwiches.
Entrée 1: The first entrée is usually fish and can be salmon with buttered toasts, oysters with vinegar and / or toasts or scallops.
Entrée 2: This is time for something a bit meaty and most of the time people will want to have foie gras. I have to admit that foie gras tastes really good but I haven't eaten foie gras in years, partly because I've been vegetarian for years (yes, Christmas is a struggle for me) but also because I do not approve of the foie gras industry. Some people start being aware of how foie gras is made - and how cruel it is - but it is very hard to change French people's habits so I don't see foie gras being off the French Christmas table anytime soon. Instead of foie gras, is can also be snails or some charcuterie.
Trou Normand: Ah, trou normand. This is my favourite bit in big meals and it's very French. And clever. And amazing. The trou normand will allow your stomach to rest a bit by eating a sorbet with alcohol. It can be a lemon sorbet with rhum, an apple sorbet with calvados, a rasbperry sorbert with champagne or sparkling wine... Why do we eat this? First because it tastes amazing and second because it allows your stomach to expand. So you can eat more. Love it!
Main meal: Most people will choose to have turkey, guinea fowl (not pig!), capon or duck. It's mostly white meat, although some people might cook beef but it's less traditional. To be served with the meat, we will have some chestnuts, pomme dauphine, mushrooms and green beans.
Cheese: of course we have a big cheese platter for Christmas. We're not savages. Cheese is served with a green salad and proper bread - never crackers!
Dessert: so, Christmas desserts depends on where you come from in France. We obviously have the traditional Christmas log, la bûche de Noël, which can either be an ice cream or a cake. It can be any flavour although the most popular ones are praline, chocolate, strawberry or vanilla. In the south of France, they eat 13 different desserts as part of their tradition.
Coffee and chocolate, if you can still eat anything... Yes, surprisingly we can and we will eat a few chocolates after the whole meal.
Drinks: for apéritif we'll have some kind of liquor as previously described and then some wine. White wine with fish and white meat, red wine with red meat (and sometimes white meat). For dessert, we can open a bottle of Champagne or a good sparkling wine.
3- What do we do
Apart from eating and drinking, of course. When you have kids, you tell them that Santa is coming after
the meal, usually around midnight so it can be on the 25th. The meal is really long so even if we start around 7pm, you won't eat dessert before 10 or 11pm. Kids will go to their bedrooms around midnight and wait for Santa to leave gifts under the tree. To be able to receive your gifts, you need to put one pair of shoes under the tree and Santa will then distribute gifts around the shoes. Kids also need to leave some chocolates, a glass of milk and a tangerine for Santa to eat on his way to give out gifts to all of the kids. Nowadays we don't really do it that way with my family - we usually let the kids have gifts a bit before the main meal. It's just so they are busy with their presents and leave us in peace for the remainder of the meal!! It is also worth mentioning that we traditionally don't have Christmas stockings or crackers. It's starting to be available in France but it's due to British influence more than anything.
Do you know of any other French Christmas Traditions? What do you do for Christmas in your country and with your family?