French children get their presents on December 6th, St Nicholas day, from Pere Noel. These presents are put into the children’s shoes that are left by the fire the night before. All remaining gifts are placed on the tree. Adults exchange presents on New Year’s Day.
As it is throughout the world, one of the major French Christmas traditions is families re-uniting for the holiday, beginning on Christmas Eve. It is a typical occasion for any family to visit one of the many brightly lit churches or cathedrals, to worship together.
The Christmas celebrations in most homes in France begin with the showing of the nativity scene or croche, as it is known. The scene consists of clay figures called santons, as well as the kings, shepherds and the holy family, together with models of local figureheads, displayed in many colours. The nativity scene is enacted in many of the cathedral squares, by puppets and players. The moulds for these santons are passed down through generations, and this French Christmas tradition has been in existence since the seventeenth century.
When retiring to bed on Christmas Eve, most families practice the French Christmas tradition of leaving the fire glowing and food and drink upon the table, just in case they have a visit from the Virgin Mary.
Food is another one of the many French Christmas traditions, with menus and tastes varying throughout the country. The Christmas meal is known as le reveillon served after midnight mass. In Burgundy, the choice is turkey with chestnuts, but for the residents of Alsace, the main course is goose. In Paris, oysters are served with pat de foie gras. The preferred cake for the season is the Christmas log, known as a buche de nol also served at le reveillon.
From Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day, a log is burned in the homes of the French people, in the south. Many years ago, a part of this log was used to make a wedge to fit in the plough, which ensured a fruitful harvest.
Another custom that takes place in France is when a Three Kings Cake, which contained a bean, is served. Whoever has the fortune to find the bean becomes Queen or King for the day. Now children venture out to look for the Kings, in the hope of finding the camels and giving them hay. This is also known as the Twelfth Day.