Christmas in France
Christmas Around the World Mini Series, Ep 03
Welcome to the third episode of the Christmas Around the World mini-series. The idea for this series came from the crowdsourced post Christmas Desserts Around the World. After a couple dozen listeners shared the nostalgic, traditional desserts from the Christmases of their childhood, I found I wanted to learn more about the unique ways Christmas is celebrated in various cultures around the world. This year, 5 guests agreed to come on for a mini episode about their experience - Mai from Palestine, Kate from South Africa, Claire Marie from France, Mar from the Alicante region of Spain, and Alexandra from Norway.
Today, I’m welcoming former guest Claire Marie back to the podcast. Claire Marie is raising 3 boys with her Irish husband in Ireland.
However, Claire Marie is French and today she’s sharing her very special memories of celebrating Christmases in the French Countryside as a very large, very Catholic, and not very wealthy family of 10.
In addition to their private Christmas traditions, Claire Marie shares about the massive Christmas dinners in her grandmother’s home, where she would visit with over 100 cousins – and where she watched her grandmother make a very special chocolate chestnut cake. This is an utterly delightful and charming episode full of smiles and great memories and some wisdom as well.
Thanks for tuning in and Merry Christmas - Joyeux Noël!
- Long dark days and the magic of Christmas
- WHY? No Santa (Le Père Noël, in French) and very few presents
- Christmas in a large Catholic family
- Midnight mass
- Feasts! Christmas Eve Dinner, the traditional Christmas meal, and different desserts
- Shoes under the Christmas tree
- Celebrating with over 100 first cousins!
- Peeling chestnuts at her grandmother's beautiful wooden dining table for Chocolate Chestnut Cake
- Christmas in French households vs. Irish households (where Claire is raising her family)
- Provence – the Christmas town scene with Santons characters
- Claire’s approach to the Advent calendar
- Christmas Day: “It’s the contrary of running everywhere and doing all the things”
Also listen on:
How To Contact Claire Marie
So if people have listened to your original episode, which I’m going to link to in the show notes, in case they haven’t because it’s delightful, it’s delightful.
Thanks in a while.
Uhm, remind everyone what region of France you grew up in?.
So I moved a lot, but I always say I from the Loire Valley, so it’s not necessarily the place most people know, like the South of France, but it’s definitely a place people should know about. It’s also the Valley of the Kings and every time I go back there’s more to see that I haven’t had time to see. It so very very French. Like in really, the sense of France is there. And so that’s just the Loire Valley. It’s kind of in the middle... France is is big but not as big as the US, but big enough for a European country. And so yeah, people don’t necessarily know where.
It is, and it’s one of the most picturesque, picturesque parts of France?
Oh yes. Yeah, and it has the perfect climate or weather. And yeah, like it’s cold in the winter, but it’s warm in the summer and you always have like a nice fresh air. It’s really really nice and I do love going back every summer.
So, paint us a picture. You said the weather was cold - it would be maybe snow? Paint us a picture of what it was like in December or at Christmas time in the Loire Valley or the Valley of the Kings?
Huh, uhm, so it can go down like it’s very cold. It is, I guess, all a matter of in relation to other countries, but like you definitely definitely have your gloves on and hats on and you would be hoping for the snow because we’re quite far, we are very far from the mountains, so snow is never given and it would be like a rare treat if it snows right around Christmas. Like you, you know, you’d have probably couple of days of snow, but it could be anytime during the winter so I don’t actually remember a white Christmas.
Never a white Christmas.
I don’t think we ever actually had a timely snow for Christmas, but it’s definitely very, very cold. I especially remember going to school freezing in the morning because we’d go in very early when it’s still dark and you’re just freezing. And so yeah, the holiday season. It’s nice because French children don’t have to go to school; we just stay home. And you can just stay warm.
Yes, and you know you’re right I, I guess I didn’t think about that, but that is, I think at least here also in the Northeastern United States, a hallmark of the Christmas season is the very very very short days. The shortest one of the year is just four days before Christmas.
Yeah, it’s like, definitely for me I feel it’s darkness like you barely see and like I know we’re speaking about France, but it’s even more obvious where I live now in Ireland because we’re a lot further on the globe and and my birthday is also towards the end of the year, so for me, it’s really, really clear. When all of the sunshine and the light just the goes, not even the sun. The light diminishes and yeah, you want to stay home.
To hibernate, yes, yeah you feel it, don’t you?
Yes, so for you kind of in the wider culture that you were around, but then also you specifically as a family was Christmas as a religious holiday. Was it just, you know, a season, a season where you light cozy candles in the darkness and hang Christmas decorations and sing Christmas carols or was it a cultural celebration? What was you family doing specifically that was the same or different as the culture around you?
Yes, so I hope I won’t be too controversial and I hope little ears are not right because we never did Santa Claus or Father Christmas. That’s the first thing and I still don’t do Santa with my kids. We were very much a Christian and we’re still are a Catholic and so yeah, for us it was really the celebration and Easter is also very big in our. Family Christmas is is a specific holiday where you get presents, yes, but it was very much a family oriented - It’s really a rare time, especially as I have a very big family. It’s a rare time when we try to get all together and we definitely celebrate... like mass is the the biggest event. It’s the real thing of the season. And then we always try to be thankful and celebrate family time. But yeah, we never did the whole crazy buying or Santa? I mean, we just practically couldn’t afford it anyway, because we were 10 kids. So I I really remember more like homemade small gifts, all of us as kids.
We would, you know, try to make little gifts for each other and we get like one bigger gift from my parents. But so yeah, we didn’t mind that at all. And it’s just nice to see as we grew up. We obviously didn’t have much money for a long time, especially as, uh, I’m the eldest, like, it took a while before my youngest brother and sisters could afford anything, but then we did like teams. So like the girls would do the boys presents and then the boys would pair up because obviously if you have a very very small budget, you have to be strategic. So it’s very nice, or like the three youngest would pair together to do a gift for like someone because we, like, I know, in a lot of families like big families they kind of
.... More sweet, funny memories about giving and receiving gifts in a very large family
So, according to French Christmas traditions, do you celebrate on the 24th or 25th or January 6th or a little bit on all?
So the I think that’s maybe specific to France, but we do Christmas over 2 days and like each of them are as important and special and each family has their own ways of doing it. Some people will do presents on the 24th evening, some people do the 25th morning, but it’s all like once it’s established you should not question how things are done.
This is very clear, like you cannot question it.
Yes I have to say and to new parents be careful what traditions you start because you can't change them.
Completely agreed, but so in our family. And again I don’t speak for all French families because it can really really very different, which is interesting and also when you marry ? That’s where compromise has to happen. And but so in our family we would do mass on the 24th evening. It’s usually a late mass. It’s suppose you mean like. So technically it’s a midnight mass, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a midnight mass, it’s more like a church service at 8 PM or 9:00 PM.
And then you return have a main course after and you know the French. They’re like a long dinner, so you definitely take your time and have a very long dinner. You speak at length and like everybody is in the kitchen for at least a day or two before that. And it’s really lovely and we usually have smoked salmon and foie gras, which I again it’s controversial, but we absolutely love it. And I know very good friends who make really really good foie fras and also we always buy from them. And then we’d often have either lamb for my parents or the traditional thing in French homes is roast turkey, but I think it’s been many, many years since Mom made turkey, especially for a very large group of people. It’s much easier to do like a tajine or like a very large casserole dish. Like you know, one bird for 25 people is not necessarily going to work, correct? And so we’d have like green beans and things like that and chestnut is always the side. And then we’d have a very nice dessert, like a Christmas log.
The Yule Log - a Bûche de Noël (a chocolate sponge cake log)?
Yes, yeah, yeah. And then we’d go to bed we'd all put one shoe under the tree (a french tradition) and so that’s what we do. If we put all one shoe, which again for us is a lot of shoes, so imagine 10 people when we were just us and now it’s a lot more because we’ll have partners and kids etc. And this is, that’s what we do and then we all go to bed and on Christmas morning, So a lot of people also go to mass on the 25th, but we never did. We only go on the 24th so the 25th means we don’t have to get out of the house or run anywhere. We all wait behind the door because then we all take turns to drop our presents under the tree for all of the other ones. So we kind of take turns it’s a big organization because imagine like 10 presents by 10.
Quickly, like you know it, it quickly gets crazy like we have a big living room but the whole tree is like it’s a sea of little presents and drawings and different things. It’s very cute. I have so many photos of this and yeah, it’s very special, especially for people who only have maybe one or two family members, it’s very different.
This is the first 10 of 35 minutes.
Tune in now to hear more about their Christmas celebrations with 100 cousins, the very French Christmas dinner they enjoyed in her grandmother's house, and how Claire Marie uses advent calendars to make the entire season special - and slow - with her Irish-French sons!!