I had a very interesting French lesson the other day in which Hélène, our teacher, told us about some of the traditions surrounding Christmas and New Year in France (in French of course!) and I thought you might be interested to know too.
To start with, the French don't send each other Christmas cards! This of course, rather belatedly, explains why I couldn't find cards with "Joyeux Noël" on them and why I had to give in and buy Marks & Spencer cards from an English source here! Hélène told us her mantelpiece is full of Christmas cards..... but only from her English friends! (She studied at Sunderland university and taught in England for some years).
No, rather the French send "les cartes de vœux" during the first "quinzaine de janvier". Sorry! That's basically 'New Year cards' during the first fortnight of January. Funnily enough, I had guessed that there was a preference for New Year cards because during my ardent searches for Christmas cards, all I could find were cards that wished a "Bonne Année" or "Joyeuses Fêtes". Now I know!
But before I digress into New Year customs, back to Christmas! Some things are the same, for example children believe in Father Christmas and gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day. Of course, I'm sure it varies from family to family but Hélène, who has three young children, told us that they buy only one or two presents for each child and then the children get other presents from grandparents, aunts and uncles etc.
France is primarily a Catholic country and in general, the French are religious. So it almost goes without saying that families attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Also, Christmas is celebrated, not so much on Christmas Day as we Brits do, but rather on Christmas Eve when whole families (including aunts, uncles, cousins etc) get together for "le Réveillon" - a big party including a long meal (well, it would in France, wouldn't it!!). Hélène told us a typical meal would start with seafood and would feature turkey, duck or goose. She said that often families would buy "un brochet" which is pike and is an expensive fish enjoyed as a luxury at this time of year.
I assume that after le Réveillon, the family walks to the church for midnight mass and as every village, no matter how small, has its own church this is probably not too arduous a journey!
New Year's Eve, also known as St Sylvestre here, is often another occasion for un Réveillon and at midnight everyone wishes each other not just "Bonne Année" - Happy New Year - but importantly a wish for good health "Bonne Santé". Hélène told us that it usual when writing new year cards to say "Meilleurs vœux de bonheur et de santé pour 2013". This translates as 'best wishes for happiness and health for 2013' and I think it's a lovely sentiment.
Evidently, on New Year's Day, it is usual to go around your neighbours, with a bottle of champagne or wine, wishing them a Bonne Année. I am wondering if any of our neighbours (who are all French) will come to us..... and I know I ought to pluck up some courage and go to them!
And finally, there is Twelfth Night. This is celebrated with a special cake called a "Galette des Rois" - cake of Kings. It is traditional for a lucky charm to be inserted into the cake then on or around the 6th January, each person present eats a slice of the cake and whoever gets the trinket, is 'king' or 'queen' for the day. This link gives you more information and a recipe...http://www.anglophone-direct.com/La-galette-des-rois
Hélène has promised that we will eat une Galette des Rois in our first lesson in January and I'm looking forward to it!
So there you have it. Some of the traditions of a French Christmas and New Year. We of course will stick to our English traditions but by this time next year, who knows!