By Lisa Rankin
Paris is a beautiful city any time of the year, but during the Christmas season, it is especially so. It’s chilly, with temperatures averaging in the mid-forties. Still, if you are willing to bundle up, you will be dazzled by the streets and boulevards adorned with sparkling lights and the tastefully decorated displays in local shops. The department stores create colorful, themed displays with the likes of animatronic animals, characters, videos, and music. Going out to see store windows is an annual outing for families in Paris.
Celebrations are familiar to those in the United States, but there are some differences. The French also put up Christmas trees and decorate their homes, but the decorations are more subdued. The colors of red and green for decorations in America are not traditional in France so you’ll see various color arrangements.
Nativity scenes are more common in French home Christmas decor, which usually isn’t taken down until February 2nd. Aside from the baby Jesus and family, classic shepherds and kings, you’ll see some unconventional figures added in, such as a chef, a butcher, or even a police officer.
Gift giving is not only on Christmas day. St Nicholas’ Day falls on December 6, and that evening the children are regaled with stories and sing songs. They leave out their shoes before going to bed, and in the morning they find them filled with treats.
There is not much of a tradition of Christmas carols nor modern Christmas music in France… you’ll be hard-pressed to see carolers in the streets of Paris. Most Christmas music played in France originates from the UK, Germany or America.
The most important part of Christmas is the meal.
The usual routine of eating in moderation goes out the window on Christmas eve when the French indulge in a marathon banquet of rich, decadent foods. The main meal and celebration are called le réveillon. The meal is elaborate and will continue for many hours with several courses, punctuated with pauses for conversation. And of course, wine and champagne are served along with each of the courses.
A lot of seafood is consumed during the Christmas feast, with particular emphasis on oysters. During December and January, stands selling oysters pop up all over Paris, often outside cafes and restaurants. Scallops and salmon are also served early on.
Foie gras, fatty goose or duck liver is another staple of the French Christmas feast. The French prefer duck foie gras because of its more potent flavor.
The main dish may be turkey stuffed with chestnuts, duck, goose, guinea fowl, or even chicken. If it has wings, it’s a contender for the menu. Vegetables with butter and herbs and sweet potatoes often accompany it.
Dessert tops off the evening after the cheese course. The most popular Christmas dessert in Paris is the yule log, or bûche de Noël . It is a delicious Swiss roll cake, most often chocolate and chestnut flavored with soft buttercream layers. The cake is a rolled sheet formed and decorated to look like a wooden log. Most log cakes resemble a natural log, decorated with meringue mushrooms, almond paste holly leaves and sprinkled with confectioners sugar to look like snow. Others are non-traditional and may come in flavors like passion fruit and are decorated more unconventionally.
During the evening, and between courses, gifts are opened, so all of the celebrations are done on Christmas eve.
On the 25th of December, barely a soul is to be seen on the streets of Paris. It’s not surprising since the Parisians will be lolling about inside their homes, resting and recuperating after consuming an impressive range of wines, rich and delicious foods, and sharing joyful moments with friends and family.
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