Door 12: OU students celebrating across the globe

To celebrate our students further afield this Christmas, area rep for Continental Europe Kate Wells, shares some festive French traditions.

As Christmas rolls towards us, at its usual frightening speed, I thought I would take the time to share a little of my experiences with the different festive traditions this side of the Channel. 

I live in France, and so Christmas is celebrated on the evening of the 24th or Réveillon, this is the same as in many European countries. Dinner is served late, and as is traditional across many parts of the world, continues for some time; presents are opened on Christmas Eve too. You may (not) be surprised to learn that Christmas morning is very, very quiet here. 

The French flag

One of the first differences I noticed during the preparations for my first Christmas here is that the Christmas season doesn’t start until December, not mid-September! 

The first thing to happen is municipal workers blocking the streets as they put the Christmas lights up on the street lamps, this always causes traffic chaos, but unlike other reasons for the road to be blocked the drivers tend to be more forgiving. Each city, town, village and hamlet has some form of decoration, often branches of pine decorated with tinsel, or parcels put on all railings and posts. 

The other difference I remarked upon when I first moved to France was that it was impossible to buy a Christmas card! This is because the French do not send each other Christmas cards. It is far more common here to send a card to friends and family wishing them “health for the New Year”. 

Now it is possible to buy to Christmas cards, but they are nowhere near as prevalent as they are in the UK. The sentiment of wishing everyone health for the New Year runs very deep, it was what one wishes everyone you meet in the first week or so of January; instead of saying “bonjour” (hello) on greeting people you know you say “bonne année et bonne santé” (Happy New Year and good health), and as you say goodbye in shops you wish everyone there the same. 

The mayor of each commune will also have a meeting with all the inhabitants to wish them well over the coming year, which in not-Covid times is accompanied by a glass of sparkling wine and a slice of the “galette de roi”. This is a puff pastry and frangipane cake traditionally eaten at Epiphany.

If, like me, you are always interested in what others eat for special occasions, then here follows a description of a typical Christmas Eve menu in France:

  • One starts with apéritifs; which are served with small bites of pretty much anything, but often foie gras on pain d’épice (gingerbread), or smoked salmon or trout on crackers.
  • The next course is seafood; often scallops or oysters,
  • Next comes a roast bird and that bird is traditionally not a turkey, but will depend on where in France you live, here in the South West it will be a duck or goose, served with vegetables, but not potatoes. 
  • Then comes a cheese platter…
  • and finally a “bûche de noël” – or a yule log, the fancier the better (obviously). 

bûche de noël

“Wow”, you’re thinking, “excellent, but I’ve still got some room” … well I haven’t mentioned that between each course is a palette-cleansing “trou”. 

The trou (or hole) is a glass of the local alcohol sometimes served over a sorbet. I first learnt of this as a “trou normand” which is apple sorbet with calvados, but it turns out that there are not just holes in Normandy, but all around France! 

The one thing which is different about the French Christmas meal is that it is very regional, unlike the UK’s traditional turkey and trimmings. It is no wonder that Christmas day itself is incredibly quiet, as everyone digests, just as is traditional in the UK on Boxing Day (which we don’t have here in France, it’s back to work for those who are not lucky enough to have taken holiday). 

If all this talk of food has inspired you – don’t forget about the Festive Bake Off. As Area Rep for continental Europe I am looking forward to judging some regional festive specialities!

Do you have different Christmas traditions in your culture? Let us know in the comments below, or perhaps share them by submitting your own article to The Hoot. 

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