The French celebrate Christmas (Noël) with what I would call flexibility. It can start as early as the 6th December with the feast of Saint Nicolas and last until the 2nd February, the feast of La Chandeleur (Candlemas).
The Feast of Saint Nicolas
The feast of Saint Nicolas is celebrated on the 6th December, especially in Lorraine, Alsace and in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. There are many legends about him and Santa Claus’/ Father Christmas’ character is based on him. Saint Nicolas was said to have saved some children from persecution. The day of his death, the 6th December, became a day when he brings sweets, biscuit and gifts to children on his donkey. He is dressed in red and white and carries a bishop’s mitre and crozier. He is accompanied by a bogeyman called Le Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) who gives out bundles of twigs or coal to naughty children.
There are many parades in towns on the feast of Saint Nicolas.
Christmas Eve / La Veille de Noël
According to tradition, the Christmas tree (le sapin de Noël) should only go up on the 24th December but many people choose to put it up earlier. French children do not hang stockings up but leave their shoes out (les souliers) so that le Père Noël (Father Christmas) can fill them with gifts (either on 5th or the 24th December). However, presents (les cadeaux) are also placed under the tree.
An important part of tradition is the Crib (la crèche). The French crib does not consist only of the traditional figures of the Virgin Mary (la Vierge Marie), Saint Joseph (Saint Joseph), baby Jesus (l’enfant Jésus), the shepherds (les bergers), the angels (les anges), the three kings (les rois mages) santons and the usual animals. It contains all kinds of clay figures called (little saints) representing village life such as a butcher (in boucher), a baker (un boulanger), the mayor (le maire), the knitter (la tricoteuse), etc. One of these santons is called le ravi (the delighted one) because he is so happy to see the baby Jesus.
On Christmas Eve, people attend Midnight Mass and then come home to a large meal – the réveillon. They eat things such as seafood (les fruits de mer), oysters (huîtres), duck (le canard), goose (l’oie) or turkey (la dinde). They drink champagne (le champagne) and some parts (the Provence region) of France serve 13 desserts. These desserts (fruit, different kinds of nuts, candies fruit, etc.) symbolise Jesus and the twelve disciples at the Last Supper. Every guest must taste each one to have good luck for the coming year.
Of course, the traditional Christmas dessert is la bûche de Noël (the yule log) which is a chocolate sponge and buttercream dessert shaped like a log.
New Year’s Eve/ La Saint Sylvestre
New Year’s Eve is called la Saint Sylvestre. There are parties and a huge meal again – le réveillon de Saint Sylvestre. It is a tradition that one kisses under the mistletoe (le gui) on New Year’s Eve. Gifts, called les étrennes, are exchanged on New Year’s Day when everyone wishes everyone une Bonne Année (a Happy New Year).
The Epiphany/ L’Epiphanie
The 6th January is the Epiphany and celebrates the coming of the magi or three kings (les roi mages). Once again, children receive small gifts and sweets. And a special cake is made called the galette des rois (the king’s cake). This is made of puff pastry and almond paste and contains a small token baked in it. It is decorated with a crown. Whoever finds the token becomes king or queen for the day.
La Chandeleur / Candlemas
The 2nd February is the feast of la Chandeleur and the day when Christmas decorations are put away. It is a day when crêpes are eaten and the Christmas season ends.