November 20, 2008

Joyeux Noël

At this time of year Paris is illuminated like a fairy tale. Beautifully decorated store windows showcase the finest in merchandise. 18th and 19th century buildings and monuments are bathed in light after dark. The tall chestnut trees lining many of the boulevards are festooned with twinkling white Christmas lights.

Neighborhoods put on their own light shows, usually on shopping streets and around markets. The Marchés de Noël or Christmas Markets located around Paris sell traditional Christmas items, such as the little figures that come from the south of France plus the usual trinkets made in China. Colourful cafes and bistros attract many passersby.

Ice-skating is offered at the outdoor rink at Paris' city hall. A forest of 100 Christmas trees has been created by Paris fashion designers to raise money for charity. Free Merry-Go-Rounds are offered for the kids in most of Paris' 20 various Arrondissements.

Concerts, choirs and music abound at this time of year. In addition there are circuses and plays including Tintin, Le Temple du Soleil; probably a pretty big show.
Christmas in France varies by region. Most provinces celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, however, in eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on December 6, with la Fête de Saint Nicolas.

In Lyon, December 8 is la Fête de Lumières, when the city's people pay homage to the Virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows.

The sapin de Noël or Christmas tree adorns many homes. Mistletoe is hung above the door during the Christmas season to bring good fortune throughout the year.
Crèches or nativity scenes peopled with santons or hands carved figures are found in French homes. Live crèches in the form of Nativity plays are commonly performed to teach the important points of Christianity.

French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël will fill them with gifts. In 1962, a law was passed decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. Candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys are hung on the tree overnight. Père Fouettard is on hand to give out spankings to bad children.

A huge feast, called le Réveillon (from the verb réveiller, to wake up or revive) follows midnight mass. It is a symbolic awakening to the meaning of Christ's birth and is the culinary high point of the season, enjoyed at home or in an all-night restaurant. Each region in France has its own traditional Christmas menu, with dishes like turkey, capon, goose, chicken or spiced sausage.

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