Christmas in France: Have yourself a Merry little ... Noël
While living in France you’ll soon discover that Christmas is THE holiday so there are a few things you should know if you want to be prepared.
First of all, Christmas is not in December. Well of course the celebration, like in the rest of the world, falls on the 25th of December, but Christmas is in the minds of the French right after All Saints’ Day (Toussaint) on November 1st … and for some, even before.
While Americans are shopping for Halloween candies in October, the centres commerciaux in France are already selling Christmas chocolates and decorations while cities across the country are preparing to “light up” their squares months in advance.
Christmas storefronts are now popping up earlier and earlier. Take Printemps Haussmann in Paris, where supermodels Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss unveiled Burberry’s interactive holiday window … on November 6th.
All of this to help get the French in the spirit, and it works. Last year, more than half picked up a Christmas present during the first week of November and 50% admitted they had bought all their gifts before the month’s end. Yet as the 25th approaches, the less the French want to hear about it.
More than being a spiritual holiday, Christmas is a time for family for 95% of the French (compared to 71% of Brits). Only thirty years ago religious holidays were still widely celebrated in this country, now they’re just a reason for time off work. More recently, displays of nativity scenes and the famous crèche Provençale have disappeared little by little.
But like many aspects of French society, this holiday has been Americanised, thanks to Hollywood movies. For the French, Santa Claus comes out on top way before Jesus. And this is when the whole fun starts.
In Anglo-Saxon culture, there’s only one Santa Claus, also called St Nicholas, who comes by December 25th to offer gifts to the nice boy and girls. In France they are two different people (not that poor Father Christmas suffers from any form of schizophrenia) and usually in northern regions of the country, as in other parts of Europe, children receive presents and chocolate from St Nicholas on his name day, December 6th.
And don’t even try to talk to the French about Charles Dickens. Sure, he’s fairly well known for Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but mention A Christmas Carol and you’ll be faced with a very puzzled look. Ebenezer Scrooge is absent from French culture, yet “traditional” movies like Home Alone or Love Actually are aired every single Christmas and are very popular among the younger generations. As are English Christmas carols, as I’m sure you’ve heard with Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas” in every magasin you enter.
Let me tell you a personal Christmas carol. As a young French girl who grew up watching tons of American movies, I was eager to learn about other customs. The year I lived in London, I came upon British traditions like Christmas Puddings and Mince Pies. Thinking it would be great to share these awesome discoveries, I brought some to our family Christmas meal for dessert instead of the traditional bûche.
The faces of my family and friends were … bewildered. And this is when I learned: don’t touch the bûche. Even if the majority of French admit they don’t even eat the Yule log because they are too full, just knowing they can have a piece is comforting.
Don’t worry, though: you won’t get charcoal in your stocking for ignoring French traditions.