In this season of remembrance and giving, it’s always a pleasure to discover customs from other cultures that celebrate the same tradition. French Christmas practices bear several differences from those in the U.S., but have also served as inspiration for much of what we now recognize as common in the States.
Test how much you already know about French Christmas with our little trivia quiz and then jump down to see if you were right!
1) Which French city is known as the country’s Christmas Capital?
2) What’s the deal with “nowell”?
3) Why do we kiss under a gui, or mistletoe?
4) What do (French) children do on Christmas Eve?
5) What is a bûche? (And we’re not talking about the dessert!)
HOW MUCH DID YOU KNOW?
1) Strasbourg, Alsace: French Christmas Capital
The earliest record of a decorated Christmas tree dates to the city of Strasbourg in the Alsace region in 1604, which was part of Germany in the Holy Roman Empire at the time. Official origins of the tree are vague – with references to religious plays called mysteries and the relevant symbolism of everlasting life associated with the evergreen - but the Christmas tree tradition as we know it today nevertheless remains attached to Strasbourg and its Germanic roots, which are celebrated in style every year with the largest marché de noël in the country.
The word comes from Old French, by way of the Latin natalem, meaning “birthday” and refers to the birth of Christ. Now spelled Noël, it refers to Christmas in all its meanings.
3) Gui, the plant
The term gui in Celtic and Gallic means “healer of everything.” In ancient times, people would pick the parasitic plant and give it to their loved ones to wish them health and prosperity. Later, they started hanging bunches of gui above their doors to ward off evil spirits. When guests arrived, they would kiss at the door, now adorned by a cluster of gui. If you find yourself under the berry-studded plant, it’s expected to kiss in the spirit of wishing each other happiness and well-being. Of course, today the tradition has also taken on more romantic nuances!
4) Gui, the donkey
In France, custom calls for children to leave their shoes out and filled with carrots for Papa Noël’s donkey, Gui. In return, Papa Noël fills the shoes with small treats and toys. Originally, Gui was fed from wooden peasant shoes, called sabots. Today, decorative sabots are sometimes still laid out, but modern shoes may be used as well. The memory of sabots remains, however, with pastry shops making chocolate sabots and filling them with candy to be given as gifts or treats.
5) Bûche: Yule Log
The bûche originally was a log, preferably taken from the hard wood of a fruit tree, that had been blessed with water, salt, and sometimes wine before being put in the fireplace on Christmas Eve. The log was also sprinkled with parts of the log from the previous year to symbolized the renewal of time. The log was placed and lit after midnight mass to offer light and warmth and it was said that if the log burnt for at least three days, the family and house would prosper during the upcoming year.
Today, with most homes lacking a fireplace, the tradition of the bûche continues. Like the sabots, the memory has been reinterpreted in pastry form. The standard bûche de noël is a sponge cake, rolled with buttercream into the form of a log and often decorated with cheery winter themes. (OK, so maybe we were talking about the desert!)
What about you? Have you celebrated Christmas with any international traditions? Share them in the comments!