My country today is France! Vive La France!
Santa Claus is called “Père Noël” (Father Christmas) in France. Like in any places celebrating Christmas, the French Père Noël wears a red suit and hat with white fur trimming with a broad black belt around his waist. He is tall and large, with ruddy cheeks and nose, bushy eyebrows, a white beard, and moustache. His big brown sack is packed full of toys that will be delivered to every household at midnight, using his sleigh pulled by reindeers.
Decorated with ornaments, glistening tinsel, blinking fairy lights, and topped by a star, the “Christmas Tree” has become an iconic figure of Christmas since its origins in the 16th century. In France, the Christmas tree first appeared in Alsace in 1521 and is called “sapin de noël” or “arbre de noël”. The tree, covered in red apples and lights, symbolized the venue of Christ: ‘the light that illuminates the world’. A fir tree is the best choice because they do not lose their leaves during winter, which doubles as a symbol of hope and eternal life. On Christmas Eve, French children used to fill their shoes with carrots and treats for Père Noël’s donkey and leave them by the fireplace.
Christmas’ presents – les cadeaux de Noël
The presents offered to each other at Christmastime represent Saint Nicolas’s caring attitude for children. They are also symbolic of the gifts offered by the three wise men to Jesus on 6 January (at Epiphany), when they arrived at the stable. Until the 1960’s, children in France were given an orange and a small gift for Christmas, which were placed in a stocking. Colorful wrapping paper and the tradition of buying more expensive gifts developed in line with an increase in American influence at the conclusion of the Second World War.
The Nativity scene – la Crèche de Noël
In the 4th century, the date of 25 December was decided upon as the birth date of Jesus and every year since then on 25 December, a figurine representing Jesus has been placed in the nativity (some nativities have it already present, though it is positioned upside down until Christmas Day). The first nativity known to man dates back to the 6th century, from which time writings describe the Christmas celebrations as being centered around the nativity in the church of Saint Mary in Rome.
Yule Logs made out of Cherry Wood are often burned in French homes. The log is carried into the home on Christmas Eve and is sprinkled with red wine to make the log smell nice when it is burning. There is a custom that the log and candles are left burning all night with some food and drinks left out in case Mary and the baby Jesus come past during the night. In France, Father Christmas / Santa Claus / St. Nicholas is called Père Noël (Father Christmas). In eastern France he is accompanied by Le Pere Fouettard, a man dressed in black. He might be the same person as Zwarte Piet in The Netherlands.
Christmas’ Eve in France – le Réveillon de Noël
The Réveillon is the big dinner French people share with their family on 24 December. The menu varies according to the region, but it is always an occasion for the family to sit down together and enjoy a variety of the most delicious dishes. Christmas is a time for celebration and thus the French indulge in luxury food and delicatessen. The Réveillon dinner can continue for up to six hours in some families and it is a very sacred tradition to the French. Eating at the table for a long time is also a social custom in France and it is intended to be a magical and unforgettable moment for children too. This is the perfect occasion for everyone to “blow out” one’s food budget and savor snails, frog’s legs, scallops (Coquilles Saint Jacques) and truffles.
Parisians usually have seafood and oysters with bran bread and butter, caviar, foie gras (goose liver pate) with currant jam and the famous Christmas Yule log. In Alsace and Burgundy, a roasted stuffed turkey/capon with potatoes is more common. In Provence, turkey is also found on the table during the Réveillon, although some more religious families would argue that fish, should be eaten instead. Foie gras is also consumed in Provence, as is the dessert Yule log. However, it is tradition to eat 13 desserts in Provence, which are used to symbolize Jesus and his 12 apostles (orange, pear, apples, prunes, melon, white nougat, black nougat, pompe à l’huile (a flat cake filled with olive oil), sorb, dates, dry figs, almonds, nuts or hazel nuts, black raisins).
French people take a great deal of care when creating decorations for the Christmas Eve dinner, particularly ornaments for the dining table, which must look elegant and inviting. On Christmas Day, food is still a very important part of the day, particularly at lunch time when it is common to eat a particularly special dish, such as rabbit, coq au vin, vol-au-vent (bouchées à la reine), etc.
On Christmas’ Eve, the midnight mass is part of the French traditions of Christmas however not everyone will be joining the church on that night. The religious service usually starts either at the stroke of midnight or a few hours before in all the cathedrals and parish churches all over France. Families get together in prayer and carol singing in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ which tradition believed to have occurred at night. Many churches are decorated for the occasion with Christmas candles, Christmas trees and a Nativity scene. Some families come back home after the Mass to a delicious French Christmas log and occasionally to open their Christmas presents.
All French Christmas markets find their origins in Alsace. Indeed the proximity of the region to Germany gives Alsatian and French Christmas markets a distinctly Germanic touch. This is apparent in the structure of the market stalls, which are little wooden houses resembling mountain chalets, covered in lights and decorations. The oldest Christmas market in Europe is that of Strasbourg, which dates back to 1570. Christmas markets mainly sell Christmas products or sometimes Christmas gifts. They can now be found all over France, with their distinctive wooden chalets.
The colors of Christmas – les couleurs de Noël
The traditional colors of Christmas are red, gold, and green. The flamboyant color red evokes light and warmth (as well as Santa’s outfit). Gold makes reference to the sun, which is not often visible in Northern France in December. Green is a reminder of the evergreen trees, such as figs and holly which are always green, regardless of the season or time of year. It is the color of hope, as it is paired with the knowledge that spring will eventually return.
My recipe is a timeless French cookie called “Madeleine’s.” They are simple classic afternoon tea cookie that is delicious and light. You can add your favorite ingredients such as spices, lemon or orange extract, toasted nuts. You can use mini-muffin tin if you don’t have Madeleine pans. They won’t look the same but will still taste great. Les cookies sont magnifiques (the cookies are magnificent)
Specialty tools: Two 12-cavity Madeleine pans
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Baking time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 dozen
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely minced
Preheat the oven to 400°F degrees. Spray the cavities of two 12-cavity Madeleine pans with nonstick cooking spray and set aside briefly. Using a mixer, beat the eggs with the salt in a large mixing bowl until they’re foamy. Gradually add the sugar and whip the mixture at medium-high speed for about 5 minutes, until the mixture is pale colored and holds a slowly dissolving ribbon when the beater is lifted. Add the vanilla extract and blend in well. Determining the ribbon stage for your Madeleine cookies. Fold the flour into the mixture in three stages. Fold in the melted butter in three stages. Blend in the lemon zest. Transfer the mixture to a 2-cup liquid measuring cup. Pour the batter into each cavity of the pans, filling three-fourths full. Place the pans on baking sheets. Bake for 10 minutes, until the Madeleine’s are golden and spring back when touched. Remove the cookie sheets from the oven and turn the Madeleine pans upside down on cooling racks. Gently shake the pans to remove the cookies. Cool completely on the racks. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days or freeze for longer storage.
**Make sure you return tomorrow for another country (Day 5) and another fabulous recipe…
Till Next Time………………………….
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