We all celebrate the holidays differently. Even across Canada, every family has their own unique traditions that are passed down and shifted slightly from generation to generation. Often, however, we share some common themes that resonate across the nation. For instance, Canadian Christmases often include turkey, a Christmas tree, presents on Christmas morning, and tales of Santa and his reindeer. But while common language histories can encourage some common behaviours, French holiday traditions around the globe aren’t necessarily all the same.
We thought it might be fun to take a look at just a couple French-speaking countries around the world and what their festive traditions look like.
France Christmas Traditions
Let’s start with the most well-known French-speaking nation - France!
There’s some crossover; traditions that will look familiar to those of us in Canada. For instance, children enjoy advent calendars and there are nativity scenes in French homes. Their nativity scenes, however, often have many more figures than just those present in the manger. These are displayed until February 2, exactly 40 days after Christmas.
Similarly, they also send letters to Santa. But in France, they often receive a response. According to French law (since 1962!) every letter to Santa must legally receive a postcard from the Man in Red himself. And rather than stockings on the mantle, it’s their shoes that children leave for Santa to fill with gifts.
It’s not all good cheer though. Santa has a foil, as it were, by the name of Père Fouettard, who will come to whip or spank children who don’t behave. Yikes! And of course, it wouldn’t be a French holiday without food. Le Réveillon de Noël is the meal that takes place at midnight on Christmas Eve. French Christmas dinners also include roasts, but while they may enjoy a turkey like Canadians, other possibilities include capon, pheasant, guinea fowl, venison, lobster, and roast duck. These roasts are often stuffed with chestnuts and mushrooms. Fois gras, smoked salmon, and oysters are often on the menu for starters, and, of course, du fromage! For dessert is bûche de Noël, or a chocolate sponge yule log. Wine is served throughout the meal, paired with each dish.
Christmas in Burundi
In Burundi, Christmas is a public holiday for most people but there are far fewer French holiday traditions to be found. Celebrations begin on Christmas Eve and run through all of Christmas Day.
Unlike those in the West, Burundians don’t chop down trees to bring inside and decorate. Instead, palm fronds or banana leaves can be used to decorate for festivities. Some people also wear red, green, and white - the colours of Burundi’s flag. The focus is less on decor, and more on the communal aspects: music, food, and church services.
Speaking of food, Burundians’ Christmas meals also look rather different from our own. Theirs may consist of chicken and rice or a stew with Middle Eastern spices, perhaps like this cassava leaves stew called isombe. Freshly baked bread is often on the table, as well as fresh vegetables and pomegranates. Sounds pretty delicious to us!
Democratic Republic of Congo’s Christmas
Christmas in the Democratic Republic of Congo sticks to the roots of the holiday. It is much more religion-focused than in many countries in the West. Churches will host musical nights with their many choirs.
Each church also has an evening of theatrical retellings of the Bible. These aren’t just nativity plays. They start in the Old Testament with the Creation, move through a show of Eden, and only end with the birth of Jesus and the killing of the male babies by King Herod. But this isn’t dark and grim. King Herod and his soldiers are often pantomime versions of their figures in the Bible, adding some humour to the affair. The play lasts through the night, often until around 1 AM. Many churches will try to time the birth of Jesus for midnight - the exact moment when his birthday starts. Families go back to church for the Christmas service at 9 AM. Fortunately after that, families often have quiet, relaxing days and perhaps even a midday nap.
Food at Christmas often includes chicken, pork, or goat, as well as rice or okra soup. Yam paste, called fufu, with stew is also usually found on the table, and possibly porridge. Some families will even buy a goat or small chicken earlier in the year and raise them in preparation for Christmas. Meals are incredibly communal, sometimes with neighbours joining each other for meals.
In general, Christmas is a communal day, with kids playing in the streets and music everywhere. The presents are often new clothes for the kids, which parents - no matter their income status - try to purchase for their children in time for Christmas Day. Otherwise, there are not usually gifts, as this is a religious, not a commercial holiday for those in Congo.
French holiday traditions are diverse across the globe, but one thing is certain: they’re about community, music, and good food. We can hold up a fork and cheers to that!