If you’re lucky enough to be in France during the month of December, be sure to stop in to some of the local grocery stores to check out the holiday goodies. You don’t even have to go to the food specialty stores like Hediard to find a good selection. If you stop in at MONOPRIX, formerly INNOS on Rue du Depart Metro: Montparnasse, you’ll find plenty of foie gras as well as holiday dishware at affordable prices.
Traditionally for Christmas dinner, families start off with a festive aperatif, either a glass of champagne or a kir royale. This is the one time of the year when people really indulge in foie gras. (If you think that people eat foie gras with Champagne throughout the year, it just doesn’t happen – with a very few exceptions).
Actually the best way to eat foie gras is accompanied with a sauterne (a much sweeter wine). The contrast of flavors is a surprise for those of us trying it for the first time, but starts to make sense (like eating Roquefort with a white wine).
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Next comes the smoked salmon or oysters or snails (escargots).
The main course these days can vary greatly, but probably the most traditional dish would be the Christmas capon served with either a raisin or chesnut stuffing. Other main dishes include goose, lamb, or even filets of beef or pork.
The traditional dessert for Christmas is the yule log or ‘buche de Noel’.
Families that attend Chrismas midnight mass may have their ‘reveillon’ or Night before Christmas meal on December 24th. However the actual tradition was to have a ‘skinny meal’ or repas maigre which consisted of dried fruits and nuts. Needless to say, over the years the concept of fasting has become highly unfashionable – and the religious traditions of fasting have fallen by the wayside.
Some families prepare a ‘reveillon’ light meal of appetizers, mini-quiche munchies and the traditional yule log, saving the main meal for Christmas day. Others have their full Reveillon dinner after midnight mass. If you have plenty of in-laws, having two days to celebrate is a good way to figure out how to share the holiday.
One tradition that differs from American kids is putting out one’s shoe rather than a stocking for Pere Noel to fill up with treats. Pere Noel, or St. Nicolas gets a cup of hot mulled wine (rather than hot chocolate) for his efforts, along with a carrot for his donkey (except nowadays, the reindeer seemed to have taken over transport duties).
Christmas remains first and foremost a family holiday. If you get invited for Christmas dinner therefore, consider yourself having crossed a major threshold. You ARE family.
In France, as in most of Europe, much of the pageantry around Christmas happens on Christmas eve while the day itself, the 25th can be awfully quiet. Because many places will be closed on the 25th, you might want to stock up on candy canes and yule log.