Growing up with Christmas traditions in France, it took me a few years to adapt when I moved to North America. I had never tasted eggnog and had to acquaint myself with Christmas movies and setting out cookies and milk for Santa—and what about turkey being eaten a whole month before at Thanksgiving? It took me some time to understand what a lovely tradition Thanksgiving is.
Living in the U.S. has made me reconnect with the traditions I grew up with, and I’d like to share some of these French traditions with you, especially the ones surrounding the festive Christmas Eve dinner, which is called “réveillon de Noël.” The word “réveillon” comes from the French verb “réveiller,” which means “to wake up” or “revive.” On this evening, French people traditionally stay up very late not only because the dinner is long and copious, but it is also followed by midnight mass—and then more food and gift-opening at home.
The traditional Christmas menu in France is very distinctive. Although there are variations depending on the region, the meal generally starts with a very good wine or champagne, and a first course that includes seafood, such as oysters and smoked salmon, and foie gras with bread and butter. Then comes turkey with vegetables and stuffing—the more indulgent variations include foie gras, but as more people have become health-minded, a chestnut or citrus stuffing is now the norm.
The dessert that crowns the meal is the “bûche de Noël,” or Yule log cake, whose origin dates back prior to the Industrial Revolution. Consisting of a sponge cake rolled with frosting to mimic the bark of a tree, the log cake allows for a great deal of creativity—many bakeries go all out to make eye-catching ones with meringue mushrooms, marzipan holly, and other edible decorations.
Filled and sated, it is then time to head to midnight mass (though some churches hold mass a little earlier, at 10 p.m., for example). It is already after 1 a.m. by the time people get back home and enjoy some treats such as some hot chocolate and brioche. Then it’s time to open gifts.
I remember waking up on Christmas, around 10 a.m., with the house still silent and everyone still asleep, after the previous day’s excitement of last-minute shopping, cooking, eating, and fun.
Contemplating the silence, the ripped gold gift wrapping on the floor, the warm ashes in the fireplace, and the white snow outside—all these moments made me realize the importance of family and the traditions that bring us together.