St. Nicholas Tradition: Saint Nicolas on December 6, and gift-giver, Père Noël ("Father Christmas"), who comes at Christmas.
Highlighted Custom: La bûche de Noël (Yule log cake)
In eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on December 6, la fête de Saint Nicolas, (the Feast of St. Nicholas) is one the most important holidays of the Christmas season. Children are given gifts of this day, instead of on December 25.
Nearly every home in France displays a Navity creche (manger scene), which is filled with little clay figures called santons or "little saints." Living crèches in the form of plays and puppet shows based on the Nativity are commonly performed to teach the important ideas of Christianity and the Christmas celebration.
A couple of French-inspired picture books:
Babar and Father Christmas, by Jean de Brunhoff. King Babar's children in Celesteville hear of the wonderful Father Christmas who brings toys to all the children in Man Country on Christmas Eve. The children write a letter to Father Christmas in the hopes of inviting him to Celesteville but when their letter goes astray, King Babar goes into Man Country to search for him personally...
The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola. Many, many years ago, in Sorrento there lived a boy named Giovanni who had no mother and no father. He dressed in rags and begged for his food and slept in doorways. But he was happy, and he could do something wonderful. He could juggle. This is how the French legend begins. Your heart will be warmed with the miracle at the end of the story as Giovanni does his last performance before a statue of Our Lady and the Christ Child. Author-illustrator Tomie dePaola has done an excellent job, retelling this old story as close to its original version as possible.
Although fewer and fewer French attend la Messe de Minuit (the Midnight Mass) on Christmas Eve, it is still an important part of Christmas for many families.The Mass is followed by a huge feast, called le Réveillon (from the verb réveiller, to "wake up" or to "revive"). Le Réveillon is a symbolic awakening to the meaning of Christ's birth and is the culinary high point of the season, which may be enjoyed at home or in a restaurant or café that is open all night. Each region in France has its own traditional Christmas menu, with dishes like goose, chicken, capon, turkey stuffed with chestnuts, oysters, and boudin blanc.
A yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Nol, (Christmas Log) is served as dessert after le Reveillon. In Southern France, a real yule log is still burned in people's homes from Christmas Eve until New Years Day. A long time ago, part of the log was used to make the wedge for the plough as good luck for the coming harvest.
The Christmas season ends on Fête des Rois (Feast of the Magi), January 6. Galette des Rois (or "Three Kings Cake") is a round cake which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi or l'enfant soleil, hiding under the table. Whoever finds la fève - the charm hidden inside - is King or Queen and can choose a partner. That child receives a couronne (crown). The other children say “Vive le roi (ou reine)!"
Source for St. Nicholas information: www.stnicholascenter.org