My First French Christmas

I’ve been fortunate to have taken part in more than one Noël in France, but I fondly remember my very first.

Like most French families, my hosts celebrated Christmas with a late-night meal on December 24 that lasted way into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Known as le réveillon, the celebration involves gathering around a table teeming with culinary delicacies: oysters, foie gras, caviar, stuffed goose, turkey or capon, all washed down with fine French wines and, of course, the finest of them all: champagne. Desserts too abound, the most traditional being the bûche de Noël, a cake rolled and frosted to resemble a yule log. In the olden days, friends and neighbors would offer each other a real log for the hearth, to bring warmth and cheer to the long, cold winter ahead.

The late-night réveillon tradition originates from the custom of attending midnight mass. Although my host family, like most French people today, skipped church services, we still made an outing to Notre Dame to check out the nativity scene. Each year, the cathedral brings in a different artisan to craft a unique crèche. This year, the 16-foot scene replete with some 90 figurines hails from Provence.

Visitors at Notre Dame can also admire a giant sapin de Noël, or Christmas tree, rising majestically before the cathedral’s facade. This year, the 65-foot evergreen comes courtesy of the Russian embassy. Back at home, my host family had to vie with the very Parisian problem of space: Papa, gifted with creativity and ingenuity, sliced a tree in half right down the length of the trunk and mounted it on the living room wall! We decorated it with tinsel and bows and sat down to our réveillon, delighted with our half-tree emerging from the wall.

The réveillon is repeated on New Year’s Eve, to ring in the new year.

No matter what you’re celebrating in your household, no matter your country or creed, may the holiday season and 2015 bring you beauty, peace and joy.

Bonnes fêtes et bonne année !