Christmas in France and how the Gills celebrate it

By Azam Gill

Lt Azam Gill (H-1)

Azam Gill

In response to a friend’s question, my article is in two parts. Part I is about how Christmas in France and mainly taken from http://french.about.com/cs/culture/a/christmas.htm

Part II is how we celebrate Christmas in our family.

Part I: French Christmas Traditions

Christmas Midnight Church Service in France

Christmas Midnight Church Service in France.

In France, Christmas is a time for family and for generosity, marked by family reunions, gifts and candy for children, gifts for the poor, Midnight Mass, and le Réveillon

French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël (aka Papa Noël) will fill them with gifts. Candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys are also hung on the tree overnight. In some regions there’s also Père Fouettard who gives out spankings to bad children (the equivalent of Santa Claus giving coal to the naughty).

In 1962, a law was passed decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. When a class writes a letter, each student gets a response.

Le Réveillon

Although fewer and fewer French attend Midnight Mass church service on Christmas Eve, it is still an important part of Christmas for many families. It is followed by a huge feast, called le Réveillon (from the verb réveiller, to wake up or to revive). Le Réveillon is a symbolic awakening to the meaning of Christ’s birth and is the culinary high point of the season. It is a family affair, and so on the evening of December 24th, all businesses, restaurants and cafés are shut. Their owners are at home with their families.

Each region in France has its own traditional Christmas menu, with dishes like goose, chicken, capon, turkey stuffed with chestnuts, oysters, etc.

Réveillon de Noël or Christmas Celebrations in France on Christmas Eve Dec 24

Réveillon de Noël or Christmas Celebrations in France on Christmas Eve Dec 24.

French Christmas Desserts

Throughout the French Christmas season, there are special traditional desserts:

French Christmas Cake: La Bûche de Noël

French Christmas Cake: La Bûche de Noël.

La bûche de Noël (Yule log) – A log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. Representative of the special wood log burned from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day in the Périgord region, which is a holdover from a pagan Gaul celebration, just like the Christmas tree and Father Christmas.

Le pain calendal (in southern France) – Christmas loaf, part of which is traditionally given to a poor person.

Treize desserts or 13 deserts (in Provence): a mixture of 13 dried fruits

La Galette des Rois (on Epiphany) – round cake which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi or l’enfant soleil, hiding under the table. Whoever finds la fève – the charm hidden inside – is King or Queen and can choose a partner.

French Christmas Decorations

Sapin de Noël

Sapin de Noël.

The sapin de Noël (Christmas tree) is the main decoration in homes, streets, shops, offices, and factories. The sapin de Noël appeared in Alsace in the 14th century, decorated with apples, paper flowers, and ribbons, and was introduced in France in 1837.

Another important aspect of French Christmas celebrations is the crèche filled with santons, which is displayed in churches and many homes. Living crèches in the form of plays and puppet shows based on the Nativity are commonly performed to teach the important ideas of Christianity and the Christmas celebration. Mistletoe is hung above the door during the Christmas season to bring good fortune throughout the year. After Réveillon, it’s customary to leave a candle burning in case the Virgin Mary passes by.

Part II: How the Gills celebrate Christmas in France

We have been cherry picking English and Pakistani traditions to integrate within the framework of French traditions. The menu has always alternated according to the childrens’ choice: turkey, goose, veal, venison, etc, but our standard Pakistani menu of Shami Kebabs, Koftas, Pulao, nans, chicken curry, etc is recurrent.

The starters are invariably French: foie gras, smoked salmon, shrimps.

The deserts started out as English, but the children started growing up and asserting themselves, so it’s the bûche or Christmas log cake which is also hugely popular in the UK! And then of course assortments of chocolates and dried fruit etc.

Champagne being considered a family celebratory drink and disassociated from Hollywood, I make it a point to pop the cork as it is done in any decent, law abiding French family!

So much for eating and drinking.

The midnight mass has always been something we were unable to respect: it’s cold, it’s late and we are protestant not catholic! A good excuse to stay indoors and do a family devotion at the tail end of our Réveillon!

Yes, you’ve guessed it.

The main Christmas meal is the evening of the 24th, started slowly and savored until midnight. Then the exchange of presents wrapped up and kept at the foot of the Christmas tree. Each present is opened and if the giver is present (rarely for the French as the celebration is ‘blood only’!) he/she is thanked. At the end, there’s a big mess of wrapping paper that needs to be cleared up!

On Christmas day itself, few churches have a service!

Everybody is asleep and recovering from the festivities!

On occasions, however, when some or all of my English relatives have been in France, we’ve had a regular English Christmas lunch as well – Turkey with trimmings, puddings etc.

Christmas Church service in Pakistan

Christmas Church service in Pakistan.

So there you are, buddies. What I miss about Christmas in Pakistan is the Urdu / Punjabi church service on Christmas day, followed by the Christmas mela in the church grounds. And of course all that food, those cakes and mathiaya’an!

Christmas mela in Pakistan

Christmas mela in Pakistan.

mathiaya’an!

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Editor’s Note: If it is not inconvenient, please do write a brief comment at the end of this page under the heading “Leave a Reply here”.


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Comments

  1. Qaisar Rashid says:

    Gill Dear,
    These festivities, if spent with dear and loved ones become unforgettable. I am sure your reunion at your son’s place during Christmas was more enjoyable. I will try to celebrate Christmas and New Year with you this year, God willing.

  2. Qadeer Ahmad Ch. says:

    Gill Jee, a nice description of Christmas event. Regards.

  3. Khalid Hassan, USA says:

    A nice narration, dear Gill. I heard a controversy over real birth date of Jesus Christ. Can you throw some light on this?

    • Azam Gill says:

      Thanks Khalid Jee, for your compliment.
      Regarding the birth date of Jesus: basically, were there no controversy, there would be no faith! What is important is that the historical Jesus did exist, for which he had to be born, and that is the kernel of truth. Scholars argue over his date of birth because it keeps the Academic Grants racket in business! Although Christians and Muslims may interpret Jesus differently, He is a keystone of their faith. Remind me in a couple of weeks as I’m editing a manuscript these days, and it’ll be enriching for me to find out the status of the controversy.

  4. Lt Col Zafar Mustafa (Abdali Coy Comd) says:

    As usual an informative and interesting read.

  5. Kamran Gul Abdullah says:

    Dear Gill,
    It’s a wonderful account. Smoked salmon, veal, shrimps and the chocolate cake,”Bhai mou may paani aa raha hae”. Nice traditions of France.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Hi Kamran,
      If your mouth is watering, then bhai, by proxy, have a meal of Karachi’s famous kebab paratha – at home or at Bundu Khan’s! The French do eat well though, and are, in fact, as food-obsessed as Pakistanis, especially Lahoris!

  6. Masood Alam says:

    Dear Gill,
    As usual you have narrated Christmas in a beautiful way and made me remember my childhood days. The good old days when we used to participate in celebrating Christmas with our good christian friends. We used to receive lot of cakes and sweets from them. Your write up made me remember the Christmas which I celebrated with our Course mate Eric Joseph (Late) at Malir Cantt. Thanks to Cheema for the nice pictures. He has become an expert in this field. Regards.

  7. Azam Gill says:

    Dear Masood, thank you.
    Cheema Jee, thank you for the excellently inserted visuals.

    • Rashid Zia Cheema says:

      Dear Masood,
      For a change all the pics were sent by Azam Gill, I just inserted these at the appropriate place in the article. So all credit goes to Gill.

  8. Munir Ahmed says:

    Gill Jee,
    As ever, a beautiful write up to read. An interesting event with beautiful narration by you adding more beauty to it.

  9. Rehmat Elahi says:

    You have nicely narrated the traditions of Christmas in France.

  10. Gill, Thank you. I am sure you are in the company of those who still attend midnight mass. I lived my childhood days in Kenya and our football team was mostly Goans from India. I remember celebrating Christmas with them. It is indeed an enjoyable time.

    • Azam Gill says:

      Thank you for asking the question!
      It is indeed enjoyable spending any kind of itme with Goans. They have a lower level of melancholy than Punjabis and know how to get the best out of day to day living.

  11. Excellent narration of the event. Gill, wish you a Happy New Year. You are inspiring and caring. Thanks. With warm regards.

  12. Rashid Zia Cheema says:

    Dear Gill,
    Good account of Christmas in France and how you and your family celebrate it.

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