While American children are hanging stockings for Santa to fill, French children are putting their shoes by the fire so Pere Noel (Papa Noel) will fill them with gifts. If children are bad in the US they are told Santa will leave coal in their stockings, but in France, a child on the naughty list might get a visit from Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), who gives spankings! Pere Fouettard accompanies St. Nicholas (Pere Noel) on his rounds, delivering whippings or coal to children who have misbehaved while St Nicholas leaves gifts for the well-behaved. On the Eve of St. Nicholas (December 6) some children in France leave their shoes out in hopes of candy…and again, on December 24.
Where did Pere Fouettard come from? Well, the story is pretty grim (kind of like the Grimm’s Fairy Tales!): “The most popular story about the origin of Le Père Fouettard was first told in the year 1150. An innkeeper captures three boys who appear to be wealthy and on their way to enroll in a religious boarding school. Along with his wife, he kills the children in order to rob them. One gruesome version tells that they drug the children, slit their throats, cut them into pieces, and stew them in a barrel. St. Nicholas discovers the crime and resurrects the children. After this, Le Père Fouettard repents and becomes St. Nick’s partner. A slightly altered version of this story claims that St. Nicholas forced Le Père Fouettard to become his assistant as a punishment for his crimes.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A8re_Fouettard) Now, can you imagine telling your children THAT story for Christmas!??? Don’t be too harsh, go reread Grimm’s….I mean, really, it is terrifying!
Another part of French Christmas is the Creche de Noel. In America it is common to have Nativity scenes, even in secular celebrations. In France, the Creche takes on a different aspect. In many parts of France, it is not enough to have a small nativity…hotels and larger homes build villages of people with their creche. Long ago I incorporated one aspect of French Creches, and that is that the baby Jesus figure does not appear until Christmas morning. Living Creches, or Nativities, are also common, as they are here in the USA.
Last, but certainly not least, are the desserts of Christmas in France: the Yule Log is an ancient tradition, predating Christianity and going back to pagan Gaul (the area of France was known as Gaul for thousands of years before Christ). A log-shaped cake is made of chocolate and chestnuts. Rather delicious looking, wouldn’t you say?
And, my favorite French custom happens on the Epiphany, the day of the King, January 6. The custom is La Galette des Rois, a cake baked with a charm inside of it. The cake is cut, everyone has their piece, and voila! Someone has the charm, and is King or Queen for the day. This person can command games and activities throughout the day, and is treated as a royal. A lovely quaint custom! I wouldn’t mind wearing the crown for a day!
As they say in France, Joyeux Noël!!! Perhaps we should adopt a quaint French custom this year?