CHRISTMAS IN FRANCE
The Christmas Season begins on Saint Martin's day, November 11, and ends on January 6 with the feast of the Epiphany.
Advent (Adventus), the coming of the arrival, lasts four weeks and is accompanied by religious rituals to prepare for the
celebration of Christmas. In the past this was a period of fasting, preparing for the Christmas meal by butchering a pig,
making pastries, and cleaning and decorating the house. Today, children open the boxes on their Advent calendars to count
the days until Christmas.
The Yule Log is a tradition that dates back to the 12th century, observed in the rural areas of France. The family goes
out into the woods on Christmas Eve to select a tree, which is then cut down. The men carry an enormous log of freshly
cut wood called the Yule log (ceppo) into the house. They circle the room three times and the log is placed in the fireplace.
A glass of wine along with oil and salt is poured over the log. Prayers are offered and Christmas songs are sung and the
log is lit. In some families, the young girls of the house lite the log with splinters from the preceding year, which they
had carefully tucked away. In other families, the mother had this privilege. It was said that the cinders of this log could
protect the house from lightning and the malevolent powers of the devil. Choices about the variety of wood, the way in
which it was lit and the length of time it took to burn constituted a genuine ritual, which could vary from region to
region This tradition lasted up to until the last quarter of the 19th century. Its disappearance coincides with that of
great hearths, which were gradually replaced by cast-iron stoves. The great log was thus replaced by a smaller one,
often embellished with candles and greenery, placed in the center of the table as a Christmas decoration.
Today, the Yule log has become a log shaped cake (Buche de Nol). On Christmas Eve, before the children go to bed, they
set out their shoes by the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel will fill them with presents. Pere Noel is accompanied by his
helper Pre Fouettard whose duty is to tell Pere Noel how each child has behaved during the past year. In some areas of
France Pere Noel distributes children's gifts on St. Nicholas Eve. The adults generally exchange gifts on New Years Day.
The manger or crèche is the centerpiece around which most Christmas festivities take place. The crèche is often filled with
little clay figures called "little saints." (stantons) In the south of France (Provence) these figures not only represent
the traditional Nativity figures but also include replicas of local dignitaries and other local characters.
These figures are sold at annual Christmas fairs in Marseille and Aix.
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