December 20, 2009
Although Paris is a fantastic city to visit at any time of the year, it is particularly magical around Christmas. Whether it’s the twinkling street lights, the holiday markets or the smells of delicious rich foods escaping from apartment and restaurant windows, it’s hard to ignore a holiday spirit that revolves (refreshingly) more around food than around the piggy bank.
For many, Christmas celebrations in France are centered around a heaping family meal served as dinner on the Eve, or as lunch on Christmas day. Oysters and champagne, foie gras and roasted capon, smoked salmon and Bûche de Noel… many figure-conscious Parisians will diet before and after les fêtes simply in order to make room for all the delicious yuletide specialties. Not partaking in the seasonal gluttony could be interpreted as a lack of joie de vivre; in order to save yourself from this fate worse than death, we recommend putting all thoughts of régime off until the New Year!
Embrace the fat. It’s cold out. Hardly anything that is traditionally served at this time of year is good for your cholesterol, so embrace the seasonal debauchery and eat, eat, eat. Although rumor has it that the French eat foie gras year-round, most actually only indulge in the delicacy around Christmas and New Year’s. This is why you may notice shelves upon shelves of different types hawked everywhere from the supermarket and the corner grocery to your local outdoor market. My personal favorite is the mi-cuit (half-cooked). Although sweet wines, such as Sauternes, are usually served with foie gras, the French seem to be especially fond of champagne at this time of year – so don’t fear a faux-pas if you’re fiending for some bubbly. Aside from foie gras and smoked salmon, oysters are the third ubiquitous appetizer of any holiday celebration.
Capon, Les Saveurs du Monde ; Oysters, SimmerTilDone.com
For the main course, capon or turkey are the traditional choices, but lamb, suckling pig or a roast of some sort are perfectly acceptable. Most of these will need to be ordered from your butcher or market vendor ahead of time, but if you are pulling together a meal at the last-minute, an early-morning jaunt to the market at opening time could yield some great finds.
For dessert, nothing but the ubiquitous bûche de Noel (Yule log) will do. You may bake your own (sort of an undertaking), find one at your local bakery, or purchase one from Pierre Hermé as Clothilde Dussoulier recommends. She also shares some great spots for food shopping for the big meal here. To read up on how it goes down for pastry chef David Lebovitz, see his write-up here.
Gifting and Prayer. Traditionally, the French open their presents on Christmas eve at midnight, although Christmas morning has steadily been gaining ground over the past couple decades, so both are socially acceptable. Midnight mass is also still a strong tradition, with most local churches performing services throughout the evening. Feel free to wander into your neighborhood church – if you’re lucky, you might happen upon a service in Latin. There are also many services in English offered throughout the city, notably at the American Cathedral, the American Church, and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The Notre Dame services (in French) are a popular option for visitors, but be sure to arrive at least an hour early if you want to obtain a seat.
Work it off. Once the food is eaten and the presents unwrapped, you may feel the need to get out for some fresh air. Most businesses will be closed for part or all of Christmas eve and day, so purchasing essentials ahead of time is a must. There are, however, still many things happening in the city on the 25th. The Grand Palais is getting festive this year with a spectacular indoor fair, complete with ferris wheels, vintage merry-go-rounds, circus performances, crêpe stands and much more – all under the gorgeous glass dome of the Grand Palais. Click here for a photo gallery of the event. For those in the mood for something a little bit more mellow, the Opera Bastille is putting on a Christmas day performance of the Nutcracker. Here is also a list of Paris’ gorgeous merry-go-rounds, which are free for children over the holidays.
A few closing words on French traditions.
- No, the Santa costume-clad figure dangling from that apartment building is not a burglar. This is not a real person. Do not attempt to rescue them. Do not tell the your local baker to call the police. We aren’t sure where this tradition stems from exactly, but don’t be alarmed: it’s just for show.
- If you notice Paris feeling a little empty, it’s because many Parisians with country houses, or with relatives with country houses, will have fled the city for a little country air. Don’t fear, they will all be back for New Year’s Eve.
Written by Genevieve Sandifer
Genevieve was born in New York City and raised between London and Paris. Genevieve is part of the Haven in Paris team and is the editor of the Hip Paris blog. Unable to stay away from Paris for too long, she now splits her time between New York, Honolulu and Paris, where she keeps tabs on the Haven in Paris properties and service providers and scours the city for great bistros, cocktail bars and vintage stores.
Website: Haven in Paris
Tags: American Mass Paris, bûche de noel, Chocolate & Zucchini, Christmas dessert, christmas in paris, Christmas Mass in English Paris, Christmas Meal, Clothilde Dussoulier, David Lebovitz, Grand Palais Jours de Fete, Manèges Noel Paris, Merry-go-Round Paris, opera bastille, Oysters Paris, The Nutcracker Paris
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