In my early years in the UK, I usually went back to my parents at Christmas so I rarely experienced a full-blown British Christmas. The couple of times I did however, it was glaringly obvious that the UK and France don’t have the same traditions AT ALL when it comes to Christmas Eve, a few of which I am going to share below. This is the kind of stuff that falls under the type of culture shock experiences that take you by surprise if you’ve been in a foreign country for a while and thought you’d figured things out a bit.
This said, my French family didn’t follow any of the traditional French ways at either Christmas or New Year so this is just one person’s reflections and hardly indicative of the wider Mysterious Ways Of The French. For one, there was not an oyster to be seen ever because they’re grim and expensive and we didn’t hold with that sort of thing. That made us barely French at all in some circles.
- In France, Christmas Eve (CE from now on, or I’m going to go mad) is a family affair. The whole extended family comes together for a massive all-nighter consisting of food, food and then more food. Thus I was very surprised one CE in the UK when I was invited by my friends to their annual dinner party at the Indian restaurant down the road, followed by a slightly intoxicated Midnight Mass (I hereby apologise for my fumbling down the aisle the wrong way for communion that one time). Midnight Mass does happen in France too, but I’ve never been so I don’t know how well attended it is by non-Catholics.
- It is very common for Christmas dinner to be eaten over the course of the night until the early hours, rather than on Christmas Day itself. It’s called Le Réveillon, which comes from the word ‘réveiller’, to be awake. French people have various knacks to stay awake for these lengthy affairs, so like French weddings, you get a timely coffee (or onion soup, because, why not, hey?) at 1 am to carry you to the next course. I can’t imagine what that’s like to wake up on Christmas Day with a food hangover, as my family didn’t do any of this; we had our Christmas dinner on Christmas Day. Come to think of it, it may be because the rest of the year, my mum was always in bed by 9 pm, so an all-nighter was not going to be a popular choice for her.
- As I said, my family was very non-traditional. It didn’t help that my mom hated (and still hates) cooking and would have gladly devolved the whole of it to me and my sister if she could get away with it, which would have been, I’ll be honest, a bit depressing, but not as depressing as not having any potatoes with your turkey because ‘we had potatoes yesterday so I didn’t think we needed them’. I still carry this particular emotional scar… This hate of cooking and effort in general led us as a family to discover the joys of frozen food and eat-as-you-cook shenanigans, and thus when my sister, brother and I became teenagers and safe to be let loose in the kitchen, we introduced our most-beloved CE tradition of all. We would spend the whole of the evening making chocolate truffles, marzipan-stuffed nuts and dates and smoked salmon/cream cheese and foie gras canapes and eating them all straight away as we made them.
- I mentioned frozen food, and I know y’all are imagining Iceland frozen bites and weirdly orange offerings. Not so. You haven’t tasted frozen food until you have visited the French stores Picard and Thiriet. I was spoilt growing up with these shops just round the corner for our frozen food needs; everything therein is of Finest quality and they usually surpass themselves at Christmas time.
I have carried this tradition over, so in the main our CE dinner will consist of a selection of canape bites. My only cooking that evening will be these gorgeous lobster rolls thanks to Lidl’s lobster. But there will be absolutely no oysters.