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Traditions & History  

Christmas Traditions in France
By Maison de la France
Dec 21, 2008, 18:40 PST

France celebrates many Christmas traditions as each region observes its own unique rituals and customs. Many have stayed confined to very small areas while others have grown in popularity and now extend throughout the country. Much more than a visit from Père Noël, Christmas in France is a combination of history, tradition, community and festivities.

It can’t be Christmas in France without the lights. Almost all cities, towns and villages will elaborately illuminate their streets, squares and bridges with Christmas lights. In Paris, the Champs-Elysées will be strung with 150,000 lights and a project known as “Paris Lights Paris,” will decorate 30 neighborhoods with lively effects and highly original creations through the end of January 2009.

Comité Régional du Tourisme en Aquitaine
The French Christmas markets were started by the Protestants in Strasbourg in 1570 as a protest to Catholic traditions. Now, for almost 500 years, the Alsacian city has been home to "Christkindelsmärik," the oldest Christmas market in France. This very popular tradition is now shared by many French cities and towns. For a complete list of Christmas market cities and dates:

Dating back to the 12th century, the "buche de Noël", or Yule log, was once an enormous log that burned the entire Christmas night. But over time, as fireplaces were replaced by cast-iron stoves, a smaller version of the log, decorated with candles, became more popular and was used as a centerpiece on the table. Eventually the wooden log was transformed into a log-shaped cake that is now a traditional part the "réveillon" or Christmas meal.

"Santons" can be found in Provence. The figurines, used in nativity scenes, stand about 2 to 12 inches tall and are hand-made from clay with plaster molds. The miniatures became popular in homes during the French Revolution when churches were forbidden to display the creche. They were first only designed as images of the saints, but eventually came to represent the typical personages of the region. They are still made today by santonniers and are considered to be collectors’ items.

Aquitaine’s "marchés aux gras" feature local specialties such as duck and goose liver for the holiday season. In the Loire Valley, the Doué-la-Fontaine market is held in a troglodyte cave.

Local folkloric heroes also figure into Christmas celebrations. According to the Basque legend, Olentzero lives in the mountains and once a year, he gives wood to the poor so no one will be cold on Christmas. Today he comes mounted on a small horse and goes door to door handing out sweets. In the Franche-Comte, Aunt Airie, travels with her donkey Marion and shares her wrapped candies. And Christkindel visits good children in Alsace, while the bad ones are taken away to the dark woods forever by Hans Trapp.

Christmas is a wonderful time to spend in France. It is a place where neighbors, friends and family join together to celebrate the Christian holiday and the rich traditions of their country.

© Copyright 2008 by

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