One of the things I absolutely love about visiting different countries is discovering new traditions and different ways people do things. And Christmas is the perfect time of year for this. Now for me, living in rural France as I have done for the last seven, years means I celebrate Christmas here in the Charente where I live. I love it because it is such a different experience from what I’m used to in the UK.
Embracing new traditions is all part of the fun and I welcome it. In fact, the only time I really struggled was in Australia. I spent ten years living over there and I never quite came to terms with seeing tinsel in palm trees. Or not sitting in front of a fire with a tin of Roses on Christmas Eve. And eating a smorgasbord of seafood for Christmas lunch was just weird.
Being a born and bred Brit, Christmas for me equals cold weather and crowds of people pushing and shoving. Then there’s the brightly lit and decorated houses, and a huge turkey dinner with all the trimmings. This is usually followed by falling asleep in front of the TV watching Home Alone.
In France that’s not the case.
Everything you need to know about Christmas in France
In France it’s not really about the presents, it’s all about the food. The French don’t go overboard getting themselves in debt to get lots of presents for the kids. Of course, the children get a visit from Père Noël (Father Christmas), that’s a given. But here in France it’s definitely about spending time with family. It’s the food that’s the star of the show and not the gifts.
And presentation is everything but I’m not talking about the Christmas decorations, I’m talking about the table. The best china, cutlery, glassware etc. is all pulled out the cupboards and on display for Christmas.
And whilst the French do have trees which they decorate, you’ll not see the abundance of outdoor decorations you’d see in the UK. Here in rural France Christmas happens inside behind the shutters rather than outside on public display.
In fact, if you didn’t know any different you wouldn’t know it was Christmas by looking at the houses. They don’t cover their houses in lights or fill their gardens with a variety of decorations. You might see the odd bit of tinsel in a tree, or a box wrapped in shiny paper, but that’s about it.
Some of the small villages have now started to put Christmas lights up in the main street, but it’s the minority rather than the majority. And it takes them forever to clear them all away. It’s not unusual to still see tinsel in trees in March.
It's all about Christmas Eve in France
But that’s not the only difference. The big event here in France happens on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. It’s known as Le Réveillon. Starting at around 8pm it’s a meal that stretches out over the evening and has several courses.
And trust me when I say the French go all out with the food. It isn’t cheap and they’ll be planning the courses weeks in advance. Not to mention all the different alcohol that accompanies it all.
Unsurprisingly champagne and wine are high on the list of priorities, along with other favourites which can often be regional. In our case, Pineau des Charentes which is a fortified wine made from grape and cognac, is often offered as an aperitif. Our neighbour Stefan usually brings us a bottle of homemade pineau for Christmas.
If you’re lucky enough to be invited for Le Réveillon then here’s what you can expect:
“Apéro” (short for apéritif) is where it all starts
Now be careful here because it’s very tempting to fill up on all these gorgeous snacks and nibbles. They are plentiful and really good to eat. But remember these are supposed to just whet the appetite and not fill you up. They’ll usually be laid out for you to help yourself. Some of my favourites are the pâté en croûte, (pate in a nice crusty pastry) and smoked salmon canapés.
Now if cooking isn’t your thing then there is a wonderful frozen food chain called Picard. A bit like an upmarket iceland, which my French friend Anne introduced me to. They are a Godsend for things like this and their food is great!
Next up are the Entrées
Once all the guests have arrived you’ll be invited to sit down at the table and starters are served. Often they’ll be more than one starter. This year, at the Ruffec Football Association Dinner, we had three starters, which included oysters, foie gras and escargots. But it was the oysters that were by far the favourite with everyone.
I have to admit I did have to dig deep to eat all of these. But to refuse would have been rude, so I took one for the team and ate everything that was put in front of me.
The Main Course for Xmas Dinner in France
Unlike in the UK where the turkey is usually almost too big for the plate, here in France it’s a little more subdued. Just as well with all the other courses they have. Poultry is definitely the favourite meat here, and where we are in the Charente a popular one is Canard (duck).
If you don’t have a large number of guests then you’ll often see a smaller bird, such as chapon (capon – roast chicken) or caille (quail). What you won’t see if a turkey is served is cranberry sauce.
As far as vegetable accompaniments are concerned, you’ll usually see the traditional gratin dauphinois, chestnuts, green beans, and roast potatoes. But like everywhere there are always variations to this.
The Obligatory Cheese Platter
I don’t think I’ve been to any French meal where a cheese course isn’t served, and this is no exception. Interesting though, the cheese platters here aren’t dressed up with grapes, nuts, or anything else. The cheeses are served as they are along with some fresh bread and a green vinaigrette salad.
But don’t expect any butter to go with your bread. This is something I never see when bread is served in France. It still baffles me as to why not. The bread here is amazing, but add some butter and it takes it to another level.
Dessert – Bûche de Noël
For those of you with a sweet tooth fear not there is something for you too. The traditional Christmas dessert here in France is bûche de Noël. Not dissimilar to a chocolate log or yuletide log, it’s traditionally made with Génoise cake and chocolate butter icing. It’s rich and utterly delicious. As someone who likes to finish on something sweet the perfect end to a huge meal.
And the best bit is literally every patisserie and supermarket sell these. They are everywhere so no baking required.
Digestifs and Coffee
Time to give your stomach a rest. Enjoy a cognac, calvados, armagnac, walnut wine, or whatever your tipple of choice. As these usually have a fairly high alcohol content (30%+) you’ll find this a welcome diversion and feel yourself really starting to relax.
And then finally, just as you think you couldn’t possibly eat or drink anything more, it’s time for coffee and truffles. Now remember, coffee in France isn’t the same as coffee in Starbucks or Costa. The sizes are small and more like espresso size. (To understand coffee in France you can read this blog post)
The truffles are to die for and beyond decadent, but the perfect end to your feast. Rumoured to have been invented by pastry chef Louis Dufour in 1895 they’re traditionally made with crème fraiche, vanilla and cocoa.
No matter how full you are there is always room for truffles.
So what do you think? Ready to take on some French Christmas traditions and incorporate them into your own Christmas? I can tell you now there are two I’ve incorporated without a problem and both involve chocolate.
So as they say in France, Joyeux Noël and Bonne Fete.