I am indebted to my husband’s cousin, Marie-France, for teaching me how to celebrate a French Christmas, a necessary skill when you marry into a French family. Forty years ago, I was an American wife newly married to a handsome young Frenchman, living in Paris, in a country with a long history of traditions, a history so long that Julius Caesar wrote that the Celts living in present day France knew how to party in style. In the States, we had practiced early to bed on the 24th in order to wake up on the 25th to a Christmas tree transformed with gifts from Santa followed by a big meal. Not so simple in France. The celebration begins the night before and might last until the Epiphany on January 6th.
I had a feeling some sort of magic was about to happen just before Christmas when I noticed that shop windows began to sparkle with delicacies wrapped in gold or silver foil. I learned that people spend 30% of their Christmas budget on food in order to eat like kings at that time of year. I saw truffles inserted into sausage, pistachios into salamis. Foie gras appeared fresh, bottled or canned, while oysters, crab and shrimp glistened on beds of ice outside shops and restaurants. I was surprised to see fresh game hanging upside down in butchers’ windows with feet, fur or feathers from top to bottom. I tasted the sweetest mandarins from Israel, Spain or Morocco, and syrupy fresh dates from the Orient. The best fruit was shining in the stalls, and the pastry chefs had created Yule log cakes decorated with meringue “mushrooms,” icing bark and flavored with chocolate, or coffee, or chestnut, or hazelnut or Grand Marnier. Pick your favorite.
A few weeks before Christmas, I had scored one for the Yankees by successfully introducing the Thanksgiving meal to my French family, but for Christmas I was on uncharted territory. My husband’s cousin who lives in Brittany four hours west of Paris came to my rescue when she invited us to share the celebration. So off we went, navigating the narrow, winding roads in the countryside to join the family for my first lesson in the French gastronomic meal.
Lesson one: even if we were young, we could still buy the best within our youthful budget and prepare the meal ourselves.
Lesson two: we began the celebration the evening of the 24th with friends and their children. Instead of carols around a piano after an early dinner, we had cocktails and canapés before the big meal, which started around 10p.m., considered early in France. The meal, called a Réveillon, or awakening, is a traditional celebratory meal eaten on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Many families still start the meal after the traditional midnight mass.
Once children had opened their gifts, the focus was on the food, eating, drinking, and talking around the table. (Note: The table is the most important piece of furniture in most French homes.) We had dozens and dozens of raw oysters that the men had bought fresh at the Brittany shore and opened themselves using tiny oyster knives and strong arms. Next, they had gone to wine producers the preceding months to buy wines for our meal. Others had gone to the fishmonger for fish we cooked in white wine and cream sauce, followed by lettuce from the greengrocer’s to cleanse our palates, next a platter of the richest, ripest cheeses from the specialty cheese shop, followed by fruit and the wonderful Yule log, all served separately, course-by-course paired with wines to deepen the flavors and loosen our tongues! And the stories flowed until we ran out of steam sometime after 2 a.m. falling into bed and a deep sleep.
In any other country, the day after such a meal would start with a digestive seltzer, coffee, and a walk in the fresh air --but not in France. We still had Christmas Day to celebrate, but this time the three-hour meal would be shared with the older members of the family!
Slowly we started the preparations, again: washing the salad, setting the table, putting pâtés and salamis on platters for starters, as this was a meat and red wine meal. Next, we stuffed, trussed and cooked the main course: pheasants with chestnuts and red cabbage. Finally, we set out the cheeses on the cheese platter, filled a bowl with more fruit, and arranged the second half of the Grand Marnier Yule log. Ready, set, go. What could possibly top the evening before and make me want to stay at the table for another three hours? I was soon to find out because this was my introduction to my mother-in-law’s side of the family.
First to arrive was the legendary family patriarch, ninety-year-old grand-père Ernest, a Battle of Verdun veteran, who spoke little but made his wishes known. Next, his wife, then aunts, uncles, and cousins, all curious to see if this new American family member could measure up to the French “joie de vivre”.
So we started again with drinks at noon, canapés, and everyone to their places at the table where we conversed, served the food platters in courses one following the other, with plenty of stories during each course. A typical French conversation at the table discusses the food presently being eaten, reminisces about the same or similar dishes eaten in the past, and moves on to variations on the recipe to try in the future. In other words, every bite evokes the past, the present and the future.
But it wasn’t all talking, eating and drinking. Sometime during the afternoon before dessert, coffee, and cognac, the music took on a familiar rhythm. First, my husband and I jumped up to dance, then some cousins, my new parents-in-law, the five-year old, the eight-year old and finally ninety-year old grand-père and his wife. There we were at three in the afternoon enjoying a “tea dance” together, exchanging partners, becoming closer and unified in our mid-winter celebration. This was the essence of the “French gastronomic meal”.
And so we danced, that Christmas in 1976, and we’ve been dancing ever since. Now living in the States, our Christmases are still celebrated both the night before and the day of the holiday with family and friends, around the table. The table has grown and contracted as lives have come and gone but the spirit of celebration and the importance of honoring the food we are fortunate to eat have remained over the years. We’ve had many more long meals with the cousins in France for weddings, birthdays, and just celebrating our visits to France. One thing is certain, I will always be grateful to Marie-France in Brittany for showing this young American abroad how to orchestrate the French gastronomic meal to share with family and friends for our own special occasions!
Learn more about the UNESCO designation of the French gastronomic meal, including an interesting short film in English.
Betsy Merceron is a retired university instructor of English as a Second or Other Language. She’s an avid traveler, writer and observer of other cultures.