Greetings dear readers and friends. Well, what a doozy of a year this has been! We’ve had our own share of trials and tribulations on our side of the world (which is putting it quite mildly) but I’ve never felt so proud of my family and just thankful to be able to see another year coming on the horizon. Even though our Christmas festivities will be decidedly quiet this year, I’m never felt more like celebrating.
We had a few health scares this past month (Covid-related, but we’re all perfectly fine now), and that really puts into perspective what’s important in life. I’ve been waking up with a huge sense of gratitude every day.
While we might be enjoying a lot of Christmastime “from afar”, here are a few of my favorite traditions from this wonderful time of year.
What’s better than a French Christmas market? Well, not a whole lot if you ask me…. We haven’t been to the German markets yet, which I heard will simply knock your socks off, but what I’ve seen in France has been pretty spectacular. The above photos (except the gingerbread stand in Alsace) are from the La Défense Christmas market in Paris. This was the first French Christmas market that I ever visited way back in 2011, and it had me hooked for good. The thing that really got me was the size and scope of the whole operation. Not only do you have Christmas decorations, specialty items (candies, cookies, sweet breads, cannelés from Bordeaux, sausages, cheeses, etc) but there is a whole “village within a village” of food stands (crêpes, waffles, hot wine, grilled French-style ham, porchini-mushroom omelettes, sauerkraut, etc) and often a beer garden (cider and local craft beers included) and an oyster bar. Le rêve… the dream!
What’s really nice about French Christmas markets is that you don’t have to go to Paris, or other major cities, to enjoy them. Nearly every town, and village, will have its own market. Some of our favorites include the markets in Aix-en-Provence, Toulon, Hyeres, and our lovely little village of Ollioules.
Nativity Scenes (Crèches)
There are many lovely, joyous Nativity scenes throughout France, but perhaps none as elaborate, and delicately constucted, as those in the south of France. Tiny, handcrafted figurines called santons can be found at Christmas markets around the region and are one of the hallmark traditions of Provence. Santon artisans prepare well in advance for the holiday season, and whole mini-towns and villages are built-up around the manger scene. A pleasure for young and old, several towns display their crèche scenes to the public and even hold crèche competitions.
And since this is Provence, it’s possible to buy tiny bushels of lavender to add to your crèche.
Christmas Decorations in every town
Although I do miss the American Christmas decorations I grew up with, I’m always amazed by how nice the French do up their cities and towns. Of course, places like Colmar in Alsace take decorating to a whole other level (the whole town is one giant Christmas wonderland), but even the tiniest villages in our area are aglow with Christmas garland, lights stung across the historic center, and glowing sapins (Christmas trees). As is the French way, the decorations are often very minimalist, with an elegant flare.
Well, this probably should have gone straight to the top, as it’s certainly the thing I’m most excited about at Christmastime. If you’re big into food (aren’t we all?), French holiday meals are like a trip to Disneyland. You want to go on every ride, and just hope that you’ve got the stamina to keep up. Featured above is my mother-in-law’s Christmas table, who is just about the most elegant lady around (and someone who inspires me every year).
Christmas Eve kicks off with Champagne, oysters, and scallops for the first course. The second course will be seafood as well (last year I believe it was a marmite du pêcheur – fisherman’s stew with a pastry-crust top). Then there’s the cheese course, salad course, and dessert. My mother-in-law makes a homemade nougat glacé – which is an ice cream nougat and absolutely heavenly (it’s the rum that gives it an extra punch).
Christmas lunch will include an aperitif hour (now’s a good time to switch over to the stretchy pants), a starter, a turkey (or other game bird) with chesnut stuffing, and various side dishes like potato gratin and pureed yams – which, I guess, is an international favorite 🙂 On to the cheese course, salad course, the rest of the nougat glacé, and a buche de noël (yule log cake). Lunch, which usually ends around 6pm, finishes off with some digestif liqueurs (for the bold at heart), coffee, and some Christmas cookies. Oh! And each meal is served with several different wines.
Bless my mother-in-law who puts in all of the hard work for the best meal(s) we’ll have all year long. Forever grateful to be a part of her traditions.
Hope you’ll have a wonderful Christmas celebrating your own family traditions. Wishing a very Joyeux Noël from la belle France! Merry Christmas!