(Click here to read the article as published in France Today Magazine)
I think we are all ready to bid adieu to 2020! With no France trip this year, I have been perfectly content to bury my head in the sand and ride out the storm. However, the holidays are such a special time - I am compelled to make the season as joyful and special as possible.
If you are used to adding a French flair to your holidays, but feeling a bit “bah, humbug” this year, I have some ideas that may make you hum a new tune. Delving into French traditions may inspire some new decor, some new tastes, and some great gifts for the francophiles on your list (even if you that’s just you!).
For Americans, Thanksgiving is the “porte d’entree” for the holiday season (If you can still fit through that porte after a robust Thanksgiving dinner!). Black Friday has recently become a thing in France, but the traditional beginning of the season is November 25 - Sainte-Catherine - which marks the beginning of Advent. (Advent comes from the latin aventus - “that which is to come)". Advent calendars are such a part of the culture in France. If yours is tired and worn out, why not get creative this year? Grab a large branch from your yard and place it in a vase or flower pot. Collect 24 children’s socks in white, red and green. Fill each sock with a message, candy or small gift, then tie a ribbon along the top with a number (1-24). Use small clothes pins to hang them on the branch. You can put 4 Advent candles around the vase to light each week. Et voilà, a festive corner of the house to count down the days (because who doesn’t like the constant reminder that you are running out of time to shop?!)
Speaking of shopping, like you, I miss the Christmas markets for which France is so famous. If you have never been to the Strasbourg Christmas Market, be sure to add it to your bucket list. Last year my husband and I strolled the stalls, drinking our vin chaud, and it was simply enchanting. This year we will have to recreate the magic with our own vin chaud, fait maison. We picked up a package of the mulling spices at a stand, but it is easy enough to make your own.
Vin Chaud d’Alsace
1/2 liter of water
5-6 sugar cubes (or 1/4 cup of sugar)
3 cinnamon sticks
3 star fruit
3 whole cloves
1 liter of white wine (preferably from Alsace)
Boil the water, sugar, cinnamon, star fruit and cloves until you obtain a mixture that is a bit thick and tacky. Turn down the heat and add the white wine. Add 2-3 slices of lemon and the sliced orange. Cover with a towel to keep in the heat and let it infuse for 10-15 minutes. Serve hot. (Maintain a warm temperature on low heat, but you must ensure that the wine doesn’t “cook”)
*This recipe can be made with pure apple juice instead of wine.
Saint Nicolas makes his rounds at the Christmas Markets in Alsance/Lorraine, and he is eagerly awaited throughout France on the night of December 5-6. He is accompanied by his donkey (Peckeresel), who carries baskets filled with children’s gifts, biscuits and candies. Children leave their shoes in front of the doors to their rooms and find them filled with sweets in the morning. As with most legends and traditions, there is a “lesson” component, so here is the folklore attached to this custom:
Three children were playing outside and got lost. A wicked butcher lured them into his shop, where he killed them and put them into a large vat. Saint Nicolas miraculously revived them and returned them to their families, earning him the reputation of Patron and Protector of Children. Le Père Fouettard, the evil butcher, dressed in black and carrying a large stick, often accompanies Saint Nicolas to threaten the children who have not been good.
My family chose to adopt the more “Disney” version, but If this year of quarantine has been especially difficult with your children at home, feel free to call on Père Fouettard.
Les Menele are the traditional Alsatian cookies for Saint Nicolas. (A bit brioche-meets-gingerbread). If you love a new baking challenge, follow the recipe here:
If you felt a wave of nausea at “baking challenge” and want a quick fix with something that you can easily mold into a Saint Nicolas, try the simpler Pâte d’amande, fait maison.
Almond powder/flour - 125 grammes
Powdered Sugar - 125 grammes
Mix together then add:
Almond extract - 4 drops
Food Coloring (optional)
Beat one egg white until frothy, then add little by little to other ingredients until a ball forms.
Festival of Lights
Although Le Grand Est is especially known for its Christmas traditions, there are special events and customs all across France. Lyon has the Festival of Lights (Fête des lumières) on December 8. This festival pays tribute to The Virgin Mary for sparing the town from the plague in 1643. Families in Lyon put candles on their windowsills, lighting up the streets. Several areas of the city are reserved for pedestrians only during the four days of festivities, which feature light shows and food vendors. There is a solemn procession up to the Basilica of Fourvière on December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) to light candles and give offerings in the name of Mary. Join the Lyonnais and put candles (preferably electric!) In your windows on December 8th. Maybe you can inspire your neighborhood to do the same!
And then there is Provence. I know it’s a bit cliché, but I have a special place in my heart for Provence. Not so much the glitzy Cote d’Azur (although it is pretty great!) but the olive grove - lavender field - chalky cliff - charming villages - Provence. The place where santonniers handcraft miniatures of each townsperson and animal to bear witness at the birth of baby Jesus in the crèche (nativity scene).
“Provençaux, faisons donc la crèche: c’est la plus belle de nos traditions provençales” - R. P. Vial
The tradition of la crèche in Provence, and particularly in Marseille, dates back to the 17th century. There are “church” nativity scenes as well as the ones families put in their homes. The oldest known and still preserved today is in Saint Maximin.
There are no hard and fast rules to creating a crèche - let your creativity flow! They are made up of 3 parts: the Sainte Famille and the stable, the countryside filled with townspeople and animals, and the backdrop - usually featuring a star and the night sky or the countryside in the distance. It has become a collectors paradise to add new features every year. I started my collection about 20 years ago from a santonnier in the small village of Séguret. Last year I was completely overwhelmed with all of the stalls of different santons from which to choose at the Christmas market in Aix-en-Provence. I have to say it is a joy every year to unwrap each townsperson, goat, fountain and lavender tree, and reassemble the scene for the season. The next time you are in Provence, be inspired at one of the Santon museums in Les Baux-de-Provence, Fontaine de Vaucluse or Marseille. There are also many shops and ateliers where you can start your own collection
If you do start your own collection in France, be sure to note the size of your figurines. They can vary from 4-5 cm to 10-12 cm! Your 8cm baker may feel a bit sheepish around a 12 cm farmer! (Here are some photos of my crèche)
Paysage de crèche
La crèche, si modest, est l’image du ciel.
Le loup n’y trouble point la paix des bergeries;
Et les aïeuls, courbés sous leurs vertus fleuries,
Dans leurs coeurs résignés et doux, n’ont pas de fiel.
Et qu’y voit-on? La ferme et ses ruches à miel,
Le puits ou le soleil met des joailleries,
Le pont, sur l’eau d’argent, qui couple les prairies,
Des amoureux conduits par l’ange Gabriel.
Là, le pêcheur toujours est content de sa pêche,
Et le poisson qu’il prend, il le rend à l’eau fraîche .
Là, le chasseur tue un gibier qui ne meurt pas.
Fouillez rues et faubourgs et la colline entière,
Cherchez partout, l’oeil grand ouvert, à menus pas,
Vous ne découvririez jamais un cimetière.
Les 13 Desserts de Provence
Why have one dessert when you can have THIRTEEN?? This custom is one of the most cherished traditions in Provence. The Christmas Eve dinner (le gros souper) before Midnight Mass has 13 desserts, honoring the number of people around the table at the Last Supper - Jesus and his 12 Disciples. These desserts, really small bites, are placed at the table on Christmas Eve and remain there for 3 days so guests have a chance to sample each one.
As with any tradition, there will be some variations between towns and families. Here is the basic list:
The first four are known as the “four beggars” (les quatre mediants), representing the four monastic orders.
Walnuts or Hazelnuts (Augustinians)
Dried Figs (Franciscans)
Dates (representing the region where Christ lived)
Calissons d’Aix - a candy made with almond paste and melon
Nougat Blanc (white nougat with pistachios, honey and almonds) representing “good”
Nougat Noir (black nougat) representing “evil”
Pompe a l’huile - a brioche-like bread with orange water and olive oil
Oranges (clementines or tangerines)
Winter Melon (or other fruit)
bûche de Noël (Yule log ) or Oreillettes (thin, light waffles)
Although it may be hard to find some of these items in the US, I did adopt this tradition a few years ago. I figure if the French can’t all agree on the list, a few substitutions can’t hurt. More and more bakeries are making bûche de Noël these days. Call your best local French bakery, or try making your own! There are so many recipes to choose from. Harder to find is Pompe a l’huile, so when you are planning a 6-hour wrapping marathon, let this dough rise!
Pompe a l’huile
500 g flour
½ tsp salt
3 tbsp orange flower water (use more or less depending on your tastes)
125ml olive oil
1 lemon zest
1 orange zest
Prepare the leaven and dough:
Dilute the yeast in warm water with ½ tsp sugar and let stand 15 minutes.
Put the flour and sugar in another bowl. Add oil, orange flower water, the zests and mix together. Add the yeast. Knead well.
Roll the dough into a ball, put it into a bowl covered by a dish cloth and let it rise for 6 hours in a warm place.
Preheat the oven at 180°C, 550°F.
Divide the pastry into two parts and roll each out into two discs 1 cm thick.
Using a knife, make incisions in the surface of the pastry disk. Brush with egg yolk.
Bake for 15 minutes or until golden and the size has increased.
Makes 2 cakes
Recipe from www.avignon-et-provence.com
As I travel throughout the year, in normal years, I keep an eye out for unique, special gifts that I can give during the holidays. Usually by October I have half of my shopping done, and am quite pleased with my amazing finds! But this is anything but a “normal” year. My gift cabinet is as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s. The thought of an “All-Amazon” Christmas makes me shiver as I love to surprise and delight with things my family and friends have not seen before. But of course, there is always a way!
Seek out authentic French boutiques in your area. We are fortunate to have a boutique at our Minneapolis/St Paul chapter of the Alliance Francaise that is constantly offering new French treasures. Marielle and Pascal hand select every item at La Maison en Provence in San Diego and can help you make the perfect gift basket. Most major cities have some type of French boutique, and shopping local is much appreciated. Of course check for authenticity! There are way too many places that slap up a French sign (usually with spelling errors) and call it good!
Maison en Provence - http://www.everythingprovence.com
Alliance Francaise - https://www.afmsp.org/laboutique
Online Boutiques - There are many online boutiques in the US as well from expats and importers who value French quality products. Be sure to order early to avoid shipping delays.
French Detours Boutique - https://www.frenchdetours.com/boutique
Order from France - Of course you can always order online from France. There are many shops that will ship to the US (allow PLENTY of time!). And for those shops who don’t ship to the US, you can set up an account on a site called ColisExpat. The concept is genius - you use their address as your French address. So for example, Galeries Lafayette sends your order to ColisExpat. Then you choose the carrier you would like to use to send the item from ColisExpat to your home. Yes, it does mean a separate shipping cost, but many times businesses will ship free or at a low cost within France. I have used this service several times and it works very smoothly!
ColisExpat - https://www.colisexpat.com/pages/en/
Books - While we are all dreaming of our next trip to France, why not read about someone else’s experiences? A recent favorite is Scott Carpenter’s French Like Moi , available at local book sellers, Barnes and Noble and Amazon
Gift Certificates for French language courses or French cooking classes are always a great idea, and easy to send anywhere!
Meilleurs Voeux pour un Noel plein de joie et de bonheur!
Wishing you a joyful holiday season!