Make sense of... French Christmas traditions

Le Père Nöel is known to all French children but in parts of the country he is still rivalled by his ancestor Saint Nicolas.

15 December 2016
By Oliver Rowland

In fact, until the 1980s many families in the Grand Est did not recognise Father Christmas at all – however, today the two co-exist side by side.

The original saint was a bishop from Turkey in the 4th century whose saint’s day is marked on December 6.

Legends grew of his generosity, especially to children, and the modern Santa derives from him after northern Europeans took their traditions to the US. However, although some people point to Coca-Cola for having popularised his look, Saint Nicolas has long been depicted in white and red robes.

A link with the saint was established in the east of France in the 10th century when a relic – part of the ‘blessing finger’ from his right hand – was brought to Lorraine and a church was built to house it south of Nancy in Saint-Nicolas-de-Port (later replaced by a large basilica).

Today he is patron saint of the department and the area has parades on or around his saint’s day on December 6 where a person dressed as him hands out gingerbread to children, sometimes accompanied by a character in black who is called Le Père Fouettard (Whipping Father) who threatens naughty children with punishment.

His lookalook also often visits schools and children leave out some hay or grain for his mule on the night of the 5-6, with some treats for them left in its place.

The occasion is especially important in Nancy where festivities over the first weekend in December include a parade with floats after which the mayor hands the keys of the city to a mock Saint Nicolas, asking for his protection for the city.

Saint Nicolas is also popular in Alsace, Hauts-de-France and Franche-Comté and many towns have ‘Saint Nicolas’ markets – the famous Strasbourg Christmas market started as one of these.

As for Père Noël, he was introduced to France in the 19th century, though has become widespread since the later part of the last century, especially through Tino Rossi’s hit Petit Papa Noël in 1946, which is the best-selling French single of all time.

Children put out their shoes next to the chimney or under the tree for their gifts.

Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who disliked veneration of saints, started another tradition, that it is the baby Jesus who delivers the gifts, which is still followed by some Catholic families in France who see it as a more ‘Christian’ alternative to Père Nöel.

One priest from Dijon was so enraged about the ‘commercial’, American-influenced Santa that he burned an effigy of him in front of the cathedral in 1951.

Since 1962 La Poste has organised a ‘Father Christmas’ secretary’ service to answer children’s letters to him.

Christmas cribs – crêches – are another old tradition, including ‘living’ crêches, a kind of nativity play involving actors of all ages and, often, real farm animals.

There is no tradition of school nativity plays in France, however certain towns, especially in the south, pride themselves on their crêches vivantes, often performed in or outside the town church by local volunteers.

It is said the idea was started by St Francis of Assisi in Italy in the 13th century before it spread to the south-east of France.

Once again this year there have been controversies over whether or not it is acceptable to display cribs in public places and council buildings. Those in favour claim they are cultural, not religious (culturelle, non pas cultuelle), though secularists beg to differ. It comes in a year when laïcité has been heavily in the news due to issues such as the ‘burkini’ row.

One lawyer for anti-crib groups told journalists: “Any­one entering the lobby of a mairie should have a feeling of total neutrality: you can represent Christmas in other ways, with a tree or decorations.”

However a lawyer for the other side countered that “people don’t pray in front of cribs” and “they are not set up by a priest”.

Top administrative court the Conseil d’Etat is to rule shortly on this but it may take a moderate view.

Its rapporteur – an official who makes a speech summing the case up to the court and whose advice is often followed – said “we do not think the context of tension surrounding secularism obliges you on principle to take action against cribs”, adding secularism could have a “peacemaking” role.

She said setting up cribs in public was only a problem if there were obvious religious intentions to it.

The Conseil was asked to rule after contradictory court decisions last year allowing a crib at the departmental council of the Vendée in Nantes but not in the mairie of Melun (Ile-de-France).

Though Saint Francis’s original crib display is said to have been a ‘living’ one, the idea soon spread of creating longer-lasting scenes with figurines, especially in Provence where there is a tradition of santons, which often represent local trades.

It is also traditional to have one at home – with the manger left empty until the family returns from midnight mass on Christmas Eve and puts the baby in his place.

Cribs are taken down on French pancake day – La Chandeleur (February 2) which marks the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem.

The image here was drawn by artist Perry Taylor. For more of his work see www.perrytaylor.fr

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