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A merry Christmas à la Française

by Paola Fiocchi Van den Brande

This year in France, like in many other countries, Christmas is going to be a very different season. For obvious reasons, it will be a much more intime, somber and likely to be a lonelier affair.

In an attempt to look beyond the pandemic, and shine a brighter light during this Christmas week so severely mutilated, I had the pleasure to interview Héloïse Prieur, a long-standing sympathizer of Passepartout Homes. She is a French language & culture coach living in London, a wine amateur and Founder of BELLE ENTENTE. Héloïse guides us through French Christmas traditions, how to celebrate Christmas “à la Française”.

Christmas table setting
  • When do French people typically celebrate Christmas?

French people love to celebrate Christmas. As we do not have any other big celebration earlier in the season, such as Halloween or Thanksgiving, Christmas remains the focal point of our winter festivities, alongside New Year’s Eve.
Beyond the religious dimension, it is a family celebration for all, with – in more normal years – family members congregating from all parts of France to be together and start official celebrations on the 24th.

Food-wise, the tradition is to have a big dinner on the 24th December: “le Réveillon” (from the word “réveiller”, which means to wake up).
On the 25th, we reconvene for a Christmas lunch! Or, as it happens in normal years, French people travel, sometimes across the country, to visit another part of the family and celebrate with them.

A perennial question is when to give the presents: some families open their presents before dinner on the 24th, some do it after dinner. It depends on the expected duration of the un-wrapping ceremony and how tired the children could be after dinner! Some do it on the 25th. It is usual, as in many countries, to place the presents from “le Père Noël” (Father Christmas) under the Christmas tree for the children to discover as they wake up.

  • What is a typical French Christmas Day menu?

A typical Christmas meal, like any French formal gathering, starts with an “apéritif”. Usually, a glass of Champagne with some small canapes or aperitif snacks. It is important to remember that, when invited for a meal at someone else’s house, you will not sit at the dinner table immediately. Aperitif, at Christmas especially, is the moment when you reconnect with family members you may have not seen for a while. It is also a moment of anticipation for the feast to come!
Then the “maîtresse or maître de maison” (litt. mistress or master of the house) invites us to sit at the dinner table and the meal can start.
Note that Christmas crackers or hats are not a French tradition. A Christmas dinner table will usually be set as a beautiful tablescape with fine Chinaware and Crystal glassware taken out of the cabinet for the occasion.

The meal starts.

For “l’entrée” (the starter), oysters or foie gras are de rigueur. Smoked salmon with blinis or seared scallops are also beautiful alternatives.

Oyster plate
Oysters and champagne

Le plat principal” (main dish) is usually a roast, with its “garniture” (sides). The “Dinde aux marrons” (turkey with chestnuts) is a tradition but certainly not the only option. Game, beef or lamb… the choice remains yours! The most important point is the conviviality of the dish.

Sides will include vegetables of all sorts, whether roasted or steamed, with usually some accompanying jus. Although there are traditionally less vegetarians and vegans in France than in some other countries, more French people are tempted by these lifestyle choices today. In this case the Maîtresse/Maître de Maison will have made sure the sides are nourishing enough and may prepare something extra for the family members with a special diet.

Turkey with chestnuts

The “plateau de fromage” (cheese board) comes after the main and before dessert in France. It is usually a selection of hard and soft cheese, served with slices of bread (think brown bread with raisins, nuts or figs…). It often comes with a small portion of green salad.

Cheese platter

Can you imagine that, after all this, we need to have some space left for dessert?

  • What are your favorite French Christmas desserts? Is there one you serve every year?
    The traditional French Christmas dessert is “La Bûche de Noël” (the Christmas log). To me it is not the finest expression of French patisserie – although some extremely fancy creations are now put forward by famous pastry chefs. I think its long-lasting popularity comes from the little decorations which ornate the cake itself: from humble little plastic figures to the most refined pieces, the Bûche is a landscape, an imaginary theatre, which brings out our inner child. My personal favourite dessert after such a heavy meal would be to offer a selection of sorbets, maybe lemon and blackcurrant served with a traditional biscuit called “langue de chat”. Especially if this is your Christmas eve dinner and you are planning on having another gathering, with another festive meal, on Christmas day!
Bûche de Noël – traditional French Christmas cake
  • You are a wine amateur and have been working with famous Chateaux yourself. What would be your French wine pairing advice for such a meal?

Champagne for the aperitif of course! When drunk on its own or just over canapes, I personally like it very mineral and Chardonnay dominant, such as a Ruinart Blanc de Blancs or a Moet et Chandon millesimé (vintage), just to name the most famous. I also like, as an aperitif, an ultra-brut cuvee (zero sugar) to start the festivities and open our appetite. This year, for instance, we will have a Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut!

Foie gras needs a sweet white wine, “un vin liquoreux”. The most prestigious pairing is with a Sauterne (an appellation which features many “grands crus classés” like Château D’Yquem, Climens, Suduiraut, Rieussec, Filhot…), but there are also other fantastic options from the French South West, such as a Montbazillac for instance.

Smoked salmon and seafood in general pair well with Chardonnays from Burgundy such as a Chablis or other appellations from the amazing Côte de Beaune: Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet, to name just a few.

With Oysters, I would recommend a dry white wine such as a Sauvignon from the Loire valley.

After the Champagne and white wine, the roast is the opportunity to share a beautiful red, for which French are spoilt for choices. Depending on the type of meat, a nice Bordeaux (the choice of regions and appellations is immense: Pauillac, Margaux, Grave, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Saint-Julien…), Burgundy (Pommard, Nuit Saint-George, Chambolle-Musigny…) or Rhône (Chateauneuf du Pape, Côte-Rotie, Saint-Joseph…) will be a festive choice. It is a matter of personal taste but I would choose a Rhône with game, Bordeaux or fine Burgundy for beef and probably a Burgundy with poultry.

Then comes the cheeseboard. Cheese is often thought to be best paired with red wine. It is actually often risky to do so, as some cheese will absolutely ruin a red wine. I would preferably go with a full-bodied white from the Rhône or Languedoc to accompany the cheese board.

This may seem like a long selection but a Christmas meal may last quite a few hours so there is ample time to pace yourself and drink responsibly!
And of course we will have more intimate festivities this year, but let’s hope we can revive all these traditions in a not-too-distant future.

Héloïse Prieur

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Born and raised a Parisian and passionate about languages and cultures, Héloïse Prieur founded BELLE ENTENTE to offer bespoke French courses and cultural coaching to individuals and companies. Academic excellence, a passion for training and coaching others and insider knowledge and access to French business and lifestyle spheres allow Héloïse to deliver outstanding French courses and lifestyle activities. BELLE ENTENTE offers the quality and convenience of private language coaching associated to the discovery of French business etiquette and art de vivre.