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Revealed: French festive traditions

From cards to food, and Père Noël to galette des rois - how a French Christmas can look, and feel, a little different

CHRISTMAS is a time for traditions - but expatriates in France will have noticed several differences between the French way of doing things and what they have been used to.

Here are just a few ways Christmas in France may be just a little different...

Christmas cards
Although Christmas cards are available in shops, French people are generally not in the habit of sending greetings cards at Christmas, except perhaps to distant family members.

Instead, they send cards after New Year and often late into January, wishing family and friends “Meilleurs voeux”.

The Christmas tree, or sapin de Noël, first appeared in Sélestat, Alsace, in the early 16th century, when it became the first town in France to authorise the felling of evergreen trees for Christmas.

As well as bringing seasonal cheer to many homes, Christmas trees also decorate town centres and shop exteriors. Many houses, churches and schools will have a crib scene.

One “Advent” tradition peculiar to Provence dictates that moist wheat from the previous harvest is placed in three cups to germinate in celebration of Saint Barbara’s day on December 4. The green shoots are decorated for Christmas table. Many boulangeries in the south sell sachets of seeds in dishes for charity.

The main feast in France is le Réveillon, on Christmas Eve, when families sit down together for several hours. Unlike the UK, where turkey and Brussels sprouts are traditional, there is no fixed Christmas menu - but delicacies such as oysters and foie gras often make an appearance.

The bûche de Noël cake was first created in France in the 1800s by a pâtissier – from Lyon, Paris or Monaco depending on the story – and pays homage to the tradition of burning a yule log during the festive period.

The bûche was known as the suche in Bourgogne, Etéau-nedelecq in Brittany, tronche in Franche-Comté, tréfeu or tréfouet in Normandy, choque in Picardy and tison de Noël in Poitou-Charentes.

At the end of the meal, a candle may be left burning for the Virgin Mary. In Provence, the meal concluded with treize desserts – 13 little dishes, the number representing Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper.

The galette des rois - a regular sight in shops at this time of year - is eaten at Epiphany (January 6). This pastry cake is baked with a hidden “bean” or inside. Whoever finds it in their slice becomes king for the day.

Father Christmas
Unlike the UK, where children traditionally hang stockings at the end of their bed for Santa on Christmas Eve, in France children have historically left their shoes by the fireplace for Père Noël to fill with gifts such as sweets, fruits, nuts and small toys.

Père Noël also visits schools and Christmas markets in towns and communes, telling stories and bringing gifts for the children.

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