I waited until today to take down our Christmas tree, because I heard that January 6th is the last day of the Christmas season in France. At the bakery they had a bunch of cakes with paper crowns on top, which I was tempted to try. (Everything at our village bakery is delicious.) But it’s probably a good thing I didn’t get one because apparently there is a little toy in each of these galettes and I probably would have choked on the toy not realizing it was in there. Today is “Epiphany”–the day to celebrate that the three kings delivered their gifts to baby Jesus. That’s why the cakes (Galettes des Rois or Kings Cakes) had paper crowns on them.
Christmas in France has had all kinds of delightful surprises like this–traditions that are just a little different than what I’m used to. I have loved taking it all in. And at the same time I have missed some of the American traditions that I took for granted.
French Traditions I Have Loved
At the end of November, we went into our grocery store and discovered stacks and stacks of chocolate advent calendars. And not generic chocolate advent calendars like we have in the U.S. No, these were primo calendars made by all the best chocolatiers in France. Everyone in the family got one and we definitely enjoyed our chocolate countdown.
In our village and in neighboring villages, everyone went all out to decorate their windows and doors. Each home or shop had its own little theme. There were mechanical dolls, bears, and other animals that moved. All in all, it was very festive and sweet and so fun to walk around and look at all the different decorations.
There were so many gnomes! Overall, gnomes were far more present than Père Noël, which surprised me because I didn’t necessarily associate gnomes with Christmas–but now I do!
I absolutely LOVED the Christmas markets. Little wooden huts were set up in the villages and vendors sold handmade and specialty items. The goods were unique–not mass produced. They were the kinds of things I love to give and get as gifts, and it was super fun to wander around and see what everyone was selling. Additionally, there was food to be had, along with hot cider or mulled wine. Each village had a different theme–one of my favorites was the medieval market where they had lots of live animals, including camels!
American Traditions I Have Missed
Christmas traditions ground you, and they keep you connected to family and friends. There is something so comforting about returning to these traditions year after year. Here are some of the things I missed about being home:
One of my favorite Christmas traditions is giving and receiving personalized Christmas cards. I looked all around, but it didn’t seem that Christmas cards were a thing in France, and definitely not the photo cards that are popular in the U.S. I missed this!
Christmas Lights on Houses
Christmas lights in France seem to stay mostly in the doors and windows, which is lovely. However, I do love the way we outline our houses in lights in the U.S. I loved driving around looking at lights when I was little, and sharing that with my kids as well. I still remember my daughter Cora exclaiming “Oooooo! Pretty!” every time she saw a house lit up with lights.
First of all, Santa Claus in France is Père Noël (Father Christmas) and he has a totally different outfit than what I’m used to. I don’t know if it is Covid-related, but there weren’t places to go to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him your Christmas wishes. And there were definitely not places for getting Santa photos, which is one of our family traditions.
American Christmas Cookies
So good. So sugary. So delightful when your friends bring you plates of them. There are definitely Christmas treats in France, but not like those. Americans own sugar.
Christmas Tree Farms
In France there are Christmas tree markets, and most of the trees were wrapped up in netting so that you couldn’t really see what you were getting. The selecting of the perfect tree in the U.S. seems to come with a lot more pomp and circumstance. I never take home a tree unless I have inspected it from all angles. Also, our trees smell way better, at least in the Pacific Northwest. (Don’t tell the French.)
I will treasure this Christmas in France for the rest of my life. I have learned that it is a happy thing to experience new traditions, even as you long for what is familiar. Because of this Christmas that we have spent in this new place, experiencing new things (including a dinner on Christmas Eve that took 4 1/2 hours and didn’t end until 11:30 PM), I have come to value past traditions even as I look forward to embracing some newly discovered ones.
For more reflections on my life in France, check out 25 Reflections: Language.