France has some of the best Christmas markets in Europe. Wooden huts selling food and drink, wooden toys, scarves, bags, and jewelry fill the streets, big wheels and ice rinks attract families and the cafes, bars and restaurants do a roaring trade. It’s particularly attractive to the British who flock over the Channel to the north France towns to stock up on Christmas items, wine and spirits and at the same time, take in the party atmosphere.
The French have always been particularly good at producing grand sons-et-lumières shows – sound and light spectacles that at Christmas play over the facades of their great cathedrals. The idea has taken hold everywhere. In 2013 the city of Le-Puy-en-Velay, one of the major starting points of medieval pilgrimages to Santiago da Compostela in Spain, began to light up its strange buildings that crown the pinnacles of volcanic rock, and Le Puy is a small town compared to the great cities of Amiens or Avignon.
One of the greatest sound and light shows takes place each year in Lyon on the weekend nearest December 10th when the Fête des Lumières takes over the city for a 4-day extravaganza. All the major buildings and statues are lit up with swirling colors and dramatic light effects. It’s an international attraction; if you want to go you’ll have to book your accommodation way in advance, and your restaurant, as well as Lyon, is the gastronomic capital of France. But the origins of the light festival are serious, dating back to 1852 and it’s an homage to the Virgin Mary.
Cathedrals and Churches
Many cathedrals and even small churches are specially lit up at Christmas time, even if they don't have spectacular sound and light shows, and most of them have towering Christmas trees, either outside or in the nave. Venture inside and you’ll always find a crèche depicting the birth of Jesus. Some are life-sized while others are modest. Most are filled with santons, hand-painted terracotta figures, still produced in Provence.
For a true feeling of the holiday, get to Sélestat, between Strasbourg and Colmar in the heart of Alsace. The picturesque town beckons at Christmas with its 10 decorated fir trees suspended from the arches of the nave in St-Georges church.
Streets and Squares
Walk through the streets, alleyways, and squares of any French city and the night air is sweet with the smell of wood smoke as fires burn in the grates. If you could see inside, you’d spot food and drink, left out just in case Mary and the baby Jesus come by during the night.
La Fête de Saint Nicolas, The Feast of St Nicholas
For eastern and northern France, December 6th, or the Feast of St. Nicholas, marks the beginning of the Christmas season. It’s particularly significant in Alsace, Lorraine, Nord-Pas de Calais, and Brittany. If a family follows strict tradition, it’s the time for storytelling, for the kind of fairy tales that keep small children awake at night. The best-known tells of three children who get lost, are enticed by a butcher into his shop and salted away in a large barrel. But happily, of course, St. Nicholas intervenes and rescues them. The story explains why St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children while the butcher became the wicked Père Fouettard who will either beat children who have been naughty or tell St. Nicholas that they should not get gifts on December 6th, the snitch.
Children put out shoes at night in front of the fireplace for the inevitable chocolates and gingerbread that fill them in the morning.
Decorations in France
Come to France in winter. Like most European countries, the main decoration in houses and in the streets is the fir tree or sapin de Noël. The inspiration of the tree came originally from Alsace, with the first recorded mention of a Christmas tree appearing in a document dating from 1521 on display in the Bibliotheque Humaniste in Sélestat. The manuscript describes a payment of 4 shillings to the warden of the forest to protect the fir trees from being cut down from St. Thomas Day on December 21st to Christmas Day.
The trees were first decorated with bright red apples, a reminder of the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. From the end of the 16th century, flowers such as roses, made from multi-colored paper decorated the trees, followed by metallic decorations to give the impression of silver and gold.
The Christmas tree traditions spread through France from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 when people from Alsace moved throughout the country, taking their traditions with them. Today no self-respecting town or family is without one.
In France, as in much of Europe, Christmas Eve or le Réveillon is an important time. While many people have given up going to Midnight Mass in the local church, they still follow the tradition of a huge feast that goes on late into the night, either at home or in a restaurant. If you want to get an idea of what’s on offer, go to any supermarket or any food shop in a French town. The displays are extraordinary: whole foie gras, oysters, baskets of fruit, geese, capon and more.
The meal on Christmas Eve has to be tasted to be believed. You eat course after course of fish, oysters, meat and in some part of France, 13 different desserts. It’s quite an event and rightly so in a country whose gastronomic tradition has been recognized on the UNESCO cultural heritage list.
Christmas Day is, not surprisingly, rather a muted affair, given the excesses of the night before. Some families go to church in the morning, nip into their favorite bar or café then go home. Most of France shuts that afternoon as the French have another good lunch then snooze the day away.
So if you're in France at Christmas, just remember to wish everybody a 'Joyeux Noël.'