Christmas customs, originating in the Orient, were introduced into France by the Romans. Rheims, which had known Rome’s triumphs, was the scene of the first French Christmas celebration when, in 496, Clovis and his three thousand warriors were baptized. Bishop Remi had purposely chosen the day of the Nativity for this ceremony. Then other important events took place on Christmas Day in the following years. Charlemagne “crowned by God, the Great and Pacific Emperor,” received the crown from the hands of Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in 800. In 1100, Godefroy de Bouillon’s successor, his brother Baudouin, was crowned in the Basilica of Saint Marie of Bethlehem. Later King Jean-Ie-Bon founded the Order of the Star in honor of the “manger”; it remained in existence until 1352. In 1389 the crowd shouted Noel! Noel! in welcoming Queen Isabeau of Bavaria to the capital. Thus, gradually, Christmas became a religious and secular celebration which, in fact, until the end of the Middle Ages, was confused with the celebration of the coming of the year, now held on “New Year’s Day.”
Today Christmas in France is a family holiday, a religious celebration, and, for the children, an occasion for merrymaking. New Year’s Day is a more strictly adult festival, where gifts are exchanged and calls are made.
Christmas Trees in France
The fir tree was first presented as the holy tree of Christmas in the city of Strasbourg in 1605. It was “decorated with artificial colored roses, apples, sugar, and painted hosts,” and symbolized the tree in the Garden of Eden. In France, Christmas trees are rarely seen in public places, but the shop windows of big department stores, principally in Paris, compete with one another in fabulous displays of animated figures; a day spent visiting and comparing the exhibits is practically a must for parents.
Family celebrations begin with decoration of the Christmas tree a few days before Christmas; candles and lights, tinsel and many-colored stars are attached to it. On Christmas Eve, when the children are asleep, little toys, candies, and fruits are hung on the branches of the tree as a supplement to the gifts that “Santa Claus” has left in the shoes before the fireplace.
The Manger in France
Another custom is that of the manger, fa creche, originating in twelfth-century France in the form of liturgical drama. At first the manger itself resembled an altar and was placed either inside the church or before the portal, as it was at the Abbey of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. Antique mangers can be seen in churches at Chartres, Chaource, Nogent-le-Rotrou, Sainte Marie d’Oloron and in the museums at Marseilles and Orleans.
The popular manger was introduced in Avignon by the family of St. Francis of Assisi between 1316 and 1334, but it was not until the sixteenth century that the making of creches or grebbes, as they were called in old French, became a wide-spread custom.
Today, the family arranges a manger on a small stage in a prominent part of the house. In Provence, children bring rocks, branches, and moss to make a setting for the manger. Little terra-cotta figures, known as “santons” or “little saints” are grouped around the manger to represent the holy family, the other characters of the story of the Nativity, and the people of the village: the mayor, the priest, the policeman, the butcher, the baker, the miller, the farmer. In the stable is a reproduction of the legendary manger of Bethlehem, with the ox and the donkey placed close to Jesus, and Mary and Joseph in the foreground welcoming the visitors: shepherds, weavers, etc. Since 1803 a special fair for the sale of the “santons” has been held in Marseilles during the month of December, but the true capital of the world of santons is the little town of Aubagne.
The Midnight Mass and the “Reveillon” in France
At midnight everyone attends the three Christmas Masses. Churches and cathedrals, large and small, are magnificently lighted and echo the joyful melodies of carols, bells, and carillons. Many churches have a “creche.” Formerly, in certain regions, a real infant was placed on the hay of the manger during the Mass, but this custom is no longer observed.
When the family returns home after midnight Mass, there is a late supper known as “Ie reveillon.” The meal varies according to the region of France. In Alsace, for example, the traditional goose is brought in on a platter and given the place of honor on the table. The Bretons serve buckwheat cakes with sour cream. Turkey and chestnuts are served in Burgundy. The favorite dishes of Paris and the 1Ie-de-France region are oysters, foie gras, and the traditional cake in the form of a yule log, which reminds one of the bUche de Noel which used to burn on the hearth on Christmas Eve. Wines are generally muscatel, Anjou, sauternes, and champagne.
In Paris, Christmas is more worldly. For some people, instead of a religious festival, it is a time for dancing, champagne, and dining in style.
The Children and Christmas in France
Ordinarily, young children do not attend midnight Mass with their parents, but go to bed early to dream of the miracle of their Christmas gifts. Before going to bed, they put their shoes by the fireside for a gift from Ie pere Noel or Ie petit Jesus. Formerly, peasants’ wooden shoes, called sabots, were very popular at Christmas time, but today shoes of any kind are set before the fireplace or around the tree. However, the sabots are not forgotten-chocolate wooden shoes are made by pastry shops and filled with candies.
Christmas Carols and “Mysteres” in France
Christmas carols were at first part of the liturgical drama and of popular origin; they appeared in the fifteenth century. Collections of these songs with rustic themes were numerous as early as the sixteenth century and were presented as Christmas bibles. They often included couplets with a secular significance. Some well-known musicians like Costeley composed new airs from old themes.
Quite burlesque and full of verve at the beginning ofthe eighteenth century, Christmas songs came to include gavottes and minuets at the end of the century. The nineteenth-century carols have a rather pompous character; the most famous is “Minuit, chretiens” by Placide Cappeau.
From the combination of the first “mangers” and of the earliest carols came the liturgical drama, given in the cathedral squares at Christmas. These dramas, in fact, gave rise to the French theater. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries performed only Biblical scenes connected with the story of Christ’s birth. These mysteres were presented with stage’settings and evolved into real plays. In our time, companies of young actors still perform miracle plays generally known as Mysteres de la Nativite; one of the most famous was written by Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Puppet shows are also given every year at Christmas, principally in Paris and in Lyons. One of the well-known Christmas puppet plays written by Mr. de Marynbourg is called “Bethlehem 1933” and is a masterpiece of popular art.
Local Christmas Customs and Legends in France
Traditional legends and beliefs associated with Christmas are numerous in France. It is undoubtedly in Provence that the Christmas holiday is celebrated with the greatest community spirit and the most exuberant joy. In some towns, shepherds offer a lamb on Christmas Eve while in others, the “reveillon” is held in the snowy mountains or a song fest precedes the midnight Mass. In the small village of Solliesville, the whole population gathers in order to take bread. Twelve children are selected, each one to receive an obol of bread, meat, and candies as a symbol of the apostles. Then a supper is offered to the important townsmen and their guests. During the Mass, the characters of the manger are portrayed by people from the village.
The magic of Christmas is the magic of the Orient. During the Middle Ages, minstrels wandered through villages and towns, telling “merveilles qui advinrent en la sainte nuit,” the legend of the flight into Egypt, or the legend of the sower who, when asked which way the holy family had gone, deceived King Herod. Legends told around the fire on Christmas Eve are nearly all forgotten; but some of them have been transformed into fairy tales or fantasies. Such a story is that of the dancers condemned to dance throughout the year because their movements had turned the priest’s thoughts during the midnight Mass. Another such tale is the pathetic and charming story of the little homeless matchmonger who, sitting in the snow on the sidewalk, struck all her matches in order to imagine Christmas in a house; but Christmas is the time of miracles and at the striking of the last match, the little girl was conveyed to Paradise by shining golden angels.