France can be a truly magical place to spend Christmas. It is an incredibly diverse country – each region has developed its own distinct cultural character and heritage, making for a rich and varied collection of Christmas traditions. Most provinces celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, as we do in the UK; eastern and northern France, however, also celebrate la fête de Saint Nicolas on the 6th of December. This is a Germanic tradition which is shared by Germany and the Netherlands in which children are given sweets and small presents by St. Nicholas and his helper. France shares many of its Christmas traditions with the UK – homes are decorated with Christmas trees (sapins de Noël), and, on Christmas Eve, children lay their shoes out by the fire in the hope that the Père Noël will fill them with presents and sweets. Mistletoe is frequently hung above doors to bring good luck, and nativity scenes are often given pride of place in homes. Unlike the UK, however, France passed a quaint and rather quirky law in 1962, which ensured that all letters written to Father Christmas would get a reply. (As a result, the workload of French elves permanently employed at the North Pole increased dramatically, with the Elf Worker’s Union ultimately calling for widespread strike action in protest against the extended working hours. The dispute was ultimately settled without Union intervention.)
As in many other countries across Europe, Christmas dinner plays a supremely important role in the French Christmas. Each region has its own traditional Christmas menu, with dishes like turkey, capon, goose, chicken and boudin blanc, a delicacy similar to white pudding. Another festive favourite is la bûche de Noël, or Yule log – a delicious log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts, harking back to the pagan tradition of burning a log from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day.
France lends itself especially well to Christmas – the mountain landscapes of the Alpine regions are blanketed by a thick covering of sparkling snow throughout the autumn and winter, and cosy wooden chalets lit by strings of fairy lights with the tantalising scent of mulled wine and raclette in the air are evocative of the festive season. Alsace is also a magical place over winter; its continental climate ensures that Christmasses are cold, with snow virtually guaranteed. Historically, there has been a strong Germanic presence in the region, meaning that Alsace is home to 35 German-style Christmas markets, where visitors can enjoy munching traditional biscuits and sipping mulled wine to the sound of Christmas carols. The market in Strasbourg is situated in front of the breathtakingly beautiful Strasbourg Cathedral, and is of particular interest. It has been running for 431 consecutive years, making it the oldest Christmas market in France, and one of the largest.
Paris also features several charming Christmas markets – however, it is worth visiting the City of Light merely to enjoy the stunning decorations. The city certainly lives up to its nickname – a huge Christmas tree strewn with fairy lights and red and gold baubles is erected in front of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral, and the trees lining the beautiful Champs Elysees are illuminated in gold, creating a corridor of light leading to the majestic Arc de Triomphe. The Galeries Lafayette, Paris’ most famous department store, is transformed into a veritable winter wonderland, bedecked with twinkling lights. Parisians also flock to the outdoor ice rink which is constructed in front of the Hotel de Ville over Christmas.
France is a great place to enjoy the festive season – twinkling Christmas lights, traditional Christmas markets and delicious regional food are wonderfully evocative, and make for an unforgettable Christmas.
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