The winter festive season – same-same but different

Winter festivities in France are qualitatively different from those in the UK – yet also have many similarities and origins .

Where we live in rural, central France the whole period of Christmas and New Year is far less commercial than it is in the UK. The focus is much more on it being a time for families to get together, eat, drink and be sociable.

The 25th of December is a Bank Holiday but it does not stop our local baker from coming round in his van and delivering fresh bread, croissants and brioche on Christmas morning!

So, what else, as the Thais would say, is “same-same but different”?.

  • By law all letters written to Santa are responded to with a postcard. When a class writes a letter, each student gets a response. How cool is that?
  • Mistletoe is hung above the door during the Christmas season to bring good fortune throughout the year ~ though I’ve not seen this in our village. We do have great fun getting French visitors to kiss under our indoor mistletoe.
  • Rather than hanging stockings by the fire, French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël (aka Papa Noël) will fill them with gifts.
  • Many people work Christmas Eve morning but finish work early. They spend the rest of the day with family members or close friends. People traditionally decorate their home,  and prepare a celebratory meal on Christmas Eve – this meal is often eaten around midnight. As in England, Christmastime festivities supplanted earlier pagan feasts. Pagan rites, such as decorating houses and streets with evergreens continues as does the burning of Yuletide Logs. It used to be that people would pour wine over the Yule Log and set it on fire on Christmas Eve. The log was burned slowly over the next few days and its ash saved as a good luck charm to be burnt on the next year on Christmas Eve. Today people buy a bûche de Noël (a log shaped dessert made of sponge cake or ice cream ~ rather like the chocolate log cake in the UK) on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and this is a remnant of that age-old tradition.
  • Twelfth Night (Epiphany or La Fete des Rois) on January 6th is a very popular festival here. Whereas in the UK it is an occasion to take down festive decorations in France it is a day for another evening family meal. In the period leading up to January 6th, the bakers shops are full of Les Galette des Rois – round cakes which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi or l’enfant soleil. Whoever finds la fève – the charm hidden inside the Gallette – is King or Queen for the rest of the day.  It reminds me of the British tradition of hiding silver coins in the Christmas pudding.
  • Interestingly one of the possible derivations of the word, Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) comes from the Touraine patois au gui menez or au gui l’an neuf respectively – i.e.‘to the mistletoe go’ or ‘to the mistletoe this New Year’ . Both of which are an  allusion to the ancient Druidical practice of gathering mistletoe for the midwinter ceremonies as it was believed to have life-giving powers and bestowed fertility. Kissing under the mistletoe was probably an early Pagan marriage ritual. Mistletoe was also used by Druids as an oral contraceptive ~ quite handy, no doubt, when you’re holding a love-fertility fest.
  • Julie Guy has also noticed that, last year, three brave

    Traditional Winter Vouvrey Drinking in the Touraine

    souls created a new Winter tradition of drinking Vouvray wine in the woods (see image).

Colin Dyson has blogged about differences around Christmas meal times click here. I’m sure other Tourainians can add further insights into the winter festive traditions of the area. I look forward to hearing from you all.

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
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5 Responses to The winter festive season – same-same but different

  1. We moved from Guisborough to Liverton Village back in 1990 and I can honestly say our prparations for Christmas are entirely different. We do not have the facility or availability to walk through the marketplace buying our tree & greenery – instead we make do with what is on our doorstep and up various farm lanes Local farmers give us holly, pheasants etc and I make all my own decorations Are you & Sandra planning a vosot over the holiday period? You are always welcome here.

    • Jim McNeill says:

      Hi Denise,
      Thanks for your comments.
      It sounds like fun in North Yorkshire! Making your own decorations is more something Touraine people do when they make ‘presents’ to hang on the tress and shrubs in their gardens or along the roadside – these are complimented by branches of fir trees put up by the local commune/distict.
      As I said, it’s quiote low-key where we are and not at all over the top.

  2. julie says:

    given the fizz was vouvray is this a touraine trad or do they have similar in champ region? The fr kiss all yr round so maybe that’s why the mistletoe thing is same-same – doin both is grt!

    • Jim McNeill says:

      Hi Julie
      Well yes, the fizz was Vouvray and, as it was donated by a ‘child of the hamlet’ it can now be classed as a Touraine tradition. I look forward to repeating the experience in the next week or so!
      For those who are not too sure what we are refering to, I’ve added an image to the original blog.

      PS ~ I do hear that, up north, the Champaign Region is very tame in comparison.

  3. Colin Dyson says:

    It is interesting to note that the French don’t do Boxing Day, Christmas is Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

    French children (and adults) open their presents on Christmas eve traditional after church, something which is quite common in europe (I think).

    I am planning to write some posts on French Christmas food traditions,but one local one is if you stagger around the woods on Christmas day with a bottle of champagne each, Santa’s little helper sometimes pops up out of no where and gives you another bottle. I think that is what happenned, I was a bit pissed.


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