Many French Christmas traditions reach back to remote ancestral times. And, while many are lost to time, others survived into the modern age — even if they’re largely unknown to Americans. So let’s prepare for a joyeux noel with these five French Christmas traditions.
Only a few fairies have managed to survive into the 21st century, but Tante Arie (“Aunt Arie”) is one of them. She was born in Franche Comté, and is the protector of the Pays de Montbéliard. According to legend, she is alternately a fairy, hobgoblin, Celtic goddess, matchmaker, baker, wyvern, and…Mother Christmas.
Tante Arie lives in a cavern. She performs miracles, and can make it snow by tearing her shirt, yarn after yarn. On Christmas night, she and her donkey, Marion, distribute gifts to good children. (The naughty ones get only brushwood.) To this day, Tante Arie and Marion visit the Christmas markets in Franche Comté each year.
A very long time ago, in the beautiful region of Savoie, Santa Claus didn’t exist! Père Chalande (“Father Chalande”) visited children for Christmas. He had a large beard and a pointed hat. At that time, families hollowed out a “tronche” (a log of firewood), filled it with nuts and chestnuts, and deposited it in the fire. Children feasted on the contents of the log after it sat over the fire until blackened.
Also, young children would sing a nursery rhyme to honor Père Chalande :
Chalande has come
His pointed hat
His straw beard
Let’s break hazelnuts
Let’s eat white bread
Until New Year
Today, Père Noël has replaced Père Chalande. And the tronche has been replaced by “Rissoles de Noël,” which are small donuts stuffed with apple or quince.
Feast of thirteen desserts
The thirteen desserts are a Christian tradition from Provence and can be traced back to 17th century. Though there is no text that quantifies the desserts, we do know that people ate dried and fresh fruits, and the famous sweet brioche known as “oil pump.” The thirteen desserts are tasted at the return of the mass and remain on the table during the next three days, until December 27th.
The thirteen desserts symbolize the number of guests of the Last Supper. Likewise, many of the desserts also have some symbolic religious reference, such as serving four different kinds of nuts to represent the four beggars.
Today in Provence, nobody, Christian or not, can conceive a Christmas Eve dinner without this famous thirteen desserts. The desserts themselves vary by region and family tradition. If you want to experience the feast of thirteen desserts without going to the trouble of making them, watch Le Château de ma mère.
Blé de la Sainte Barbe
This is another tradition of Provence. Though its exact origins are unknown, it’s almost certainly pre-19th-century. On December 4, people celebrate “Sainte Barbe” (Saint Barbara, a 3rd century martyr) by planting wheat in three small cups that represent the Holy Trinity. The seeds will germinate before Christmas, and if the wheat grows straight, it portends a prosperous new year. The wheat itself often goes into a nativity scene or on the table for decoration.
These traditional sweets of the Terreaux district of Lyon are chocolates wrapped in a gold or silver paper that bears a riddle, joke, or quote (or sometimes a firecracker). They originate from the 18th century.
According to legend, a confectioner’s apprentice was in love with a lovely young lady who worked upstairs from the shop. To charm her, he sent her confections wrapped in paper with sweet words written on it. But…plot twist!…she turned out to be the niece of his boss, Mr Papillot! There are alternate endings to the story?
- Mr. Papillot fired the apprentice, stole the idea, and began selling the treats at his shop
- The apprentice married the young lady
In 1898, two families from Lyon founded a chocolate factory, the Révillon Company, and commerical versions of these treats are available widely.
Want more French Christmas traditions?
Check out episode 19 of Christmas Past, which explores the history of a more modern French Christmas tradition: la buche du noel. You can even learn to make your own!