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Shoes off for Le Père Noël

The French Père Noël leaves his presents in shoes, not stockings

WHILE both French and British children hope for a visit from Father Christmas, the French Père Noël leaves his presents in shoes, not stockings.

Though the French recognise the “Anglo-Saxon” tradition of what they call chaussettes de Noël (Christmas socks) and in French-speaking Canada they have a tradition of bas (stockings) de Noël, in France you leave out your petits souliers (little shoes).

They are lined up by la cheminée (the chimney) or placed under le sapin de Noël (Christmas tree, sapin meaning fir).

Souliers is an old-fashioned word for “shoes”, and the average French person thinks of the 1946 song by Corsican crooner Tino Rossi, Petit Papa Noël, which is the biggest-selling French single ever (about 40 million). The chorus goes: Petit papa Noël/ Quand tu descendras du ciel/ Avec des jouets par milliers/ N’oublie pas mon petit soulier (Little Daddy Christmas/ When you come down from the sky/With thousands of toys/ Don’t forget my little shoe).

The tradition comes from an earlier one associated with Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, who was known for his generosity and, legend has it, once threw coins though a window and down the chimney into a poor man’s house, where they landed in stockings and shoes left out to dry. The money went to pay for dowries for his daughters whom he could not afford to marry off.

In the east, especially Lorraine, where he is the patron saint, in some families it was traditional to leave out shoes for the saint to fill with delicacies such as pain d’épices (gingerbread) or clementines, and sometimes to leave out a gift, such as a carrot or grain for his ass. A children’s song from Lorraine goes: Oh, grand Saint Nicolas, patron des écoliers, Apportez-moi du sucre dans mes petits souliers. (O great Saint Nicholas, patron saint of schoolchildren, bring me sugar in my little shoes).

While Father Christmas (essentially a version of the saint, transformed by immigrants in the US and exported back to France) is making inroads in these areas, too, there are still parades where the saint hands out sweets to the children, and he often visits primary schools. Traditionally the parades also included a less friendly character, le Père Fouettard (Whipping Father), who would chase children and threaten them with his whip if they had been naughty (though, unsurprisingly, he is said to be seen less and less these days).

Like the British version, le Père Noël’s toys are made by his elves (lutins), he carries his toys in a big sack (la hotte), and drives a flying sleigh (le traineau), pulled by reindeer (les rennes). They are called: Tornade (Tornado), Danseur (Dancer), Furie (Fury), Fringant (Frisky), Comète (Comet), Cupidon (Cupid), Éclair (Lightning) and Tonnère (Thunder). Rodolphe (Rudolph) was added later after the character was created by American Robert L. May in 1939.

In France, la Poste arranges for replies to any letters posted from children clearly addressed to Le Père Noel, whether sent to his traditional address at le Pôle Nord (North Pole) or not (the sender's address should be written on the back of the envelope), or, these days, he will email you if you write via his website

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