Christmas in Paris: Lights, Décor, Champagne
Preparations for Christmas in Paris cannot fail to win over even the grumpiest of Scrooges (such as myself). This city of excess really comes into its own during the festive season, a time to gorge ourselves on sweet treats and eat into our overdraft buying lavish gifts for our nearest and dearest.
But the basic ingredients of a sophisticated French Christmas are not so different to our Anglo-Saxon variety.
Firstly, there’s the Christmas lights, which start going up pretty much as soon as Halloween is over. Every town and village in France puts up lights, but the most spectacular installations are to be found, of course, in Paris. The 200 trees lining the Champs-Élysées are decked in fairy lights, the elegant Place Vendome sparkles extravagantly and the luxurious boutiques of Avenue Montaigne all attempt to outdo one another (Dior probably wins this year, with its enormous glittering chandelier). Some of the smaller streets are equally charming – Rue Mouffetard is the perfect place to pick up some delicacies for the Christmas feast under a blanket of twinkling lights running the length of the quaint cobbled road.
Alongside their illuminations, Parisian department stores are famous for their ‘vitrines de Noel’ – flamboyant festive window displays. Stores like Le Bon Marché, Printemps and BHV Marais all draw massive crowds with their artistic offerings. But the crowning glory of Parisian window displays (and indeed department stores) is of course Galeries Lafayettes. This year, the windows tell the whimsical story of a curious robot called Leon who journeys through space (in a convenient partnership with the new Star Wars film). And the decorations only get bigger inside. This store encapsulates the consumerist excess of the festive season – I had to remind myself to close my mouth as I wandered around, entranced by the sparkles.
The best outdoor decorations usually coincide with Christmas markets. For size, check out the Champs-Élysées or La Défense, but for quality try smaller venues like the Gare de l’Est, Gare Saint-Lazaire, Notre Dame and Places des Abbesses. Of course, if you’re looking for the authentic Christmas market experience you’ll have to venture further afield, to the region of Alsace in eastern France. Strasbourg’s market was founded in 1570, and attracts around 2 million visitors per year; the city has crowned itself ‘Capital of Christmas.’ Ice skating rinks and beautiful vintage carousels are also regular features of the markets in France.
When it comes to food, the French are ready and trained for Yuletide excess. The main meal happens on Christmas Eve (Le Réveillon), sometimes after Midnight Mass and usually over several hours. Turkey is preferred in Burgundy, and goose in Alsace, but many families simply eat their favourite meal, the most luxurious, special-occasion delicacies they can think of/afford. Foie gras and oysters are very common, along with escargots, duck, ham, lobster and game. All washed down with a healthy serving of champagne – what else?
Dessert can be as lavish as you like, but the traditional dish is a ‘bûche de Noël.’ Originally, this was a real wooden log placed at the fireside on Christmas Eve, sprinkled with wine to assure a good harvest or with salt to protect the house from witches. As it became less common to have a hearth on which to place the log, it was transformed into a cake; a roll of sponge filled with cream and chocolate ganache, made to look like the traditional log.
Despite their beloved secularism, the Christmas crib (crèche) is a treasured tradition in France, filled not just with the iconic Nativity figures but with all sorts of extra characters; butcher, baker, drummer boy, policeman, local dignitaries…
Santa Claus is Père Noël (Father Christmas), and brings gifts on Christmas Eve. In French tradition, he is accompanied by Le Père Fouettard – a terrifying figure dressed in black who doles out punishments to naughty children. Thankfully, the legend of Père Noel has persisted while that of Père Fouettard has gradually died out. Rather than stockings, French children leave their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts. And since 1962 the French postal service has replied with a postcard to every letter sent to Père Noël.
Confusingly, the French have another Réveillon meal on New Year’s Eve, which is quite often the exact same as the Christmas feast. Then the festive season ends on 6th January, with the celebration of the Epiphany, and French people return to their normal level of excessive consumption of wine and excellent food.