I thought I would give my readers a peak into how the French, or at least my French family, celebrate Christmas. For many of the French Christmas Eve and Christmas day are spent with family and New Year’s Eve is spent with friends. There are 4 siblings in my brother’s family, but two of his brothers live far away and didn’t travel this year. So my SIL and I shared responsibilities, she did the 24th and I did the 25th.
Before the 24th / 25th
My husband & I spend a lot of time planning the menu. Food is a huge part of the traditions, so we need to anticipate what needs to be ordered, prepped, pre-cooked, made.
The Saturday before Christmas we finalized the menu and tried to buy most of what we needed.
The 24th : My sister in law hosts dinner
My husband was off so he spent a good part of the day cooking for the 25th. After I ran, I went to the movies with my daughter.
In the evening, we went to mass as a family (France is a very Catholic country). It is near my SIL’s home, so they went early and reserved seats because it is standing room only. Mass started at 7:30 p.m. and was done at 8:45 p.m., then we head over to my SIL’s. There were 13 of us. My family of 4, my SIL’s family of 6, my mother in law, my brother in laws’ mother and a friend.
The evening’s menu (keeping in mind that my SIL is an amazing cook and spent hours / days preparing & cooking) :
- Drinks first (always champagne) with some munchies : parmesan / olive ‘cookies’, cherry tomatoes, radishes, some munchie with smoked salmon. This lasts from about 9:30 to 10:15 p.m. I try not to eat too much because I know that my SIL has prepared an amazing meal, as always!
About 10:15 we get up to move to the table but before sitting, my BIL spends time on the seating arrangement, very important in France ! There are only 3 men out of 13 people, so male / female seating is not possible. Also, husband and wives do not sit together once they have been married for more than a year, and you have to think about you who put next to the older guests. So it takes him a good 5 minutes to think things through and get everyone in place.
- Entree : fois gras (goose liver paté) that my SIL bought uncooked and cooked herself with special spices and there is smoked salmon for those who do not like foie gras. We spend 15 minutes talking about the foie gras and how wonderful it is and how we love the spices she used.
- Main dish : Capon (you can only get them at Xmas) with morel mushrooms and chestnuts, served with a wine sauce and white rice. AMAZING. We spend 30 minutes talking about the capon. What it is exactly, why you can only find them at Christmas, how she prepared it, the special wine that it was cooked in…
- Cheese. I didn’t have any, I was too full.
- Dessert : Usually a traditional Yule Log. My mother in law made one, and my SIL made a second family recipe. We compare them. Some people liked it when it is cooked a bit more, others prefer when it is not as cooked. What kind of chocolate was used ? More time spent discussing food.
We don’t always have a hot main dish, and the dinner on the 24th is often “lighter”. Besides food, most of the meal is spent talking about politics, the economy and family members we are missing who could not be with us. Dinner is done at midnight. We are home in bed by 1 a.m.
I was up by 8, my husband and children around 9/ 9:30. The four of us opened presents around 10 or so. We don’t do stockings, but the French lay out shoes, and the gifts are placed with your shoe.
From 10:30 to 1:30 we cooked everything that could be anticipated, cleaned, picked up and I even took a short nap. I had to fit 11 people at our table so I rearranged the living area a bit, set the table and had to find 11 chairs. My girls were a very big help.
Anytime we have guests, we use our fine china.
My SIL and her family arrived around 2 p.m. Firstly we had drinks (more champagne) with tomatoes, olives and some nuts. My husband puts in the roast. My MIL opens her gifts and we do a small exchange (gifts for one child of the other family & for each couple).
At 3 p.m. we sit down to eat. More foie gras with some special jams. Of course we have to compare the foie gras with my SIL’s from the night before. She cooked hers, we bought ours, so she gets more brownie points :).
Then the roast. This is our tradition, because we have the most amazing butcher ever. We are never disappointed. I would never dare change the menu because everyone talks so much about our roast ! We talk about the roast for 20 minutes. How much does it weigh ? Is it cooked enough ? Does the wine go well with it ?… you get the picture !
No cheese because I knew we would be too full (but often there is cheese). Then dessert, another family tradition, my husband’s favorite. It is called the Bon Jeune Homme (Good young boy) and in short it is like a chocolate caramel served with Creme Anglais. It is a “liquid” dessert. We spent at least 20 minutes talking about the dessert, comparing it to the other years, critiquing the thickness of the Creme anglais, the sweetness of the chocolate.
We then have coffee and skype for an hour with those who could not be with us. My BIL and is family are in Africa.
Everyone leaves around 6 p.m. We watch a movie, play with our Christmas presents (I pick up, clean, do laundry, vacuum), and enjoy the rest of the evening together.
The year was very typical of our French family traditions. Of course, during the week marathon training continued, I am almost half way there.
Tell me some of your family traditions ! Do you think the French traditions vary greatly from the American traditions ?