Christmas in France is a time for get togethers with family and friends. It is a time to worship together, dine together and enjoy together.
Arranging the Nativity scene is a popular custom associated with the French Christmas season. During Christmas, nearly every home in the country displays a Nativity scene or creche which is the center of Christmas celebrations for families. Little clay figures called "santons" or "little saints" are placed in the creche. The "santons" are made by craftsmen in the south of France throughout the year. Throughout the Christmas season, the figures are sold at annual Christmas fairs in Marseille and Aix.
On Christmas Eve, children put out in the hearth their shoes or wooden clogs called sabots to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel, the French equivalent of the British Father Christmas and the American Santa Claus. The apparel of Pere Noel is akin to the older garb of Santa Claus in a long red hooded robe, edged with white fur. His presents are carried not in a sack, but in a basket or hotte on his back, like those carried by grape harvesters. Pere Noel is said to travel with his stern disciplinarian companion Pre Fouettard who reminds him how each child has behaved during the past year. A popular Christmas song for French children is Petit Papa Noel. Children write letters to Pere Noel in the hope of getting presents from him. Their wishes are fulfilled when they wake up in the morning to find not only their gifts but also sweets, fruit, nuts and small toys hanging somewhere closeby. Adults generally wait until New Year's Day to exchange gifts.
On the eve of Christmas churches and cathedrals are beautifully lit with candles, church bells are rung and Christmas carols are sung by all present. In cathedral squares, the story of Christ's birth is re-enacted by both players and puppets. On Christmas Eve, after the midnight mass is over, a very late supper known as "Le reveillon" is held. The menu for the meal varies from region to region within the country. While goose is the main course in Alsace, it is oysters and pat de foie gra in Paris. In Burgundy it is turkey with chestnuts. The "buche de Nol", meaning "Christmas Log", is a traditional Yule log-shaped cake specially prepared here for Christmas and is an indispensable part of the grand French Christmas feast. Le Revellion may consist of poultry, ham, salads, cake, fruit and wine.
The custom of Christmas tree decoration has never been that popular in France. The use of the Yule log has faded in the country, though in the southern parts a log is burned in individual homes from Christmas Eve until New Years Day.
Once dinner is over family members retire to bed but not before laying food and drinks on the table and leaving a fire burning. This is believed to be in honour of Virgin Mary who is supposed to visit homes during Christmastime.