Before you continue, this is not complete. I had asked the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. for help and oddly they could not help. So I did the next best thing, I contacted the French Government itself. And after waiting have yet to receive a reply.
I have also sent out requests to some French Cooking Websites and a few people I know in France. It seems many of these traditions have been so long forgotten that no one knows anything about much of them anymore.
As I said before, it is so sad when we lose our traditions.
I am still hoping someone will help me with this, it would be really nice to know.
John Sutton (Nov 9, 2010)
The celebration of Christmas in France varies by region. Most provinces celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, which is a bank holiday. However, in eastern and northern France, the Christmas season begins on 6 December, la fête de Saint Nicolas, and in some provinces la fête des Rois* is one the most important holidays of the Christmas season. In Lyon, 8 December is la Fête de lumières, when Lyonnais pay hommage to the virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows to light up the city.
Lyon's Light Festival (Fête des lumières à Lyon):
One of the most famous events during the French Christmas season is the Light Festival in Lyons, but in fact it has no link to Christmas other than the close date, 8 December.
In 1850, Lyon's religious leaders announced a contest for a statue that would be placed at the top of Fourvière hill. The unveiling ceremony for the winning sculptor's work two years later was set for 8 September (anniversary of the virgin Mary's birth), but when the Saône river overflowed and flooded the site, the date of the ceremony was changed to 8 December (date of the Immaculate Conception).
To celebrate the new statue, some Lyonnais citizens planned to illuminate their houses and apartments with candles, but bad weather on the day forced a second rescheduling, to 12 December. Nevertheless, the entire city spontaneously decided to light candles the 8th, and then went down into the streets to gaze at the city, lit from one end to the other. With the celebration of this widespread, friendly gesture, which also moved the religious authorities to illuminate Fourvière's chapel, the Light Festival was born.
Since then, the people of Lyons have put candles or small lights in their windows and then gone into town to enjoy the illumination and have a good time with friends and fellow citizens.
Many people work during some part of Christmas Eve but finish work early. They spend the rest of the day with family members or close friends. People traditionally decorate their homes and prepare a celebratory meal. This meal consists of different dishes in different areas of France.
Meals May Include:
Fish, such as pike, carp, or trout, foie gras, roast goose, cookies flavored with aniseed, cinnamon and almonds and cherry soup (Alsace).
Seven meatless dishes (Provence).
The seven "meatless" dishes are presented as part of the aperitif portion of the Christmas meal. They are served when the family returns from Christmas Eve church services. The number seven is representative of the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. The dishes represent sorrows, but they are anything but sorrowful. They are usually "meatless" only in that they don't consist of huge chunks of meat. They can range from oysters or snails to cold cuts or savory pies. Also included can be smoked salmon, omelets, olives or a tapenade, pâté de foie gras, blinis and caviar, and bread and salads. To suit the elaborate nature of the meal, the oysters might be served with a champagne sabayon and other dishes usually will be just as elaborate. Elaborate is the name of the game, however a simple bowl of peanuts might also be served and would not be out of place. Champagne is the traditional beverage, but frequently served are seven wines, one for each dish.
Thirteen desserts consisting of 13 different types of fresh and dried fruit, nuts and traditional candy to symbolize Jesus and his 12 apostles (Provence).
A typical assortment might include toasted hazelnuts, raisins, oranges, apples, fruit candies, shortbread cookies, any typical local candy, pears, white nougat, brown nougat, Christmas sweet bread, almonds and walnuts. As you can see, these do not have to be elaborate; it's more about having the traditional number of dishes and keeping them available for all.
Doing some digging I came across this list....
After midnight mass in Provence, the family gathers around the table to have a light meal of the, "13 desserts," to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus.
The desserts are:
Almonds for the Carmelites with bare-feet.
Figs for the Franciscans.
Raisins for the Dominicans.
Walnuts for the Augustines.
Pate of quince
Bread called Pompe à huile
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons orange-flower water *
3 1/4 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon, minced
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
1/4 cup candied fruit, diced
In a small bowl, stir the yeast into the orange-flower water. Let it sit until dissolved, about 5 minutes.
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the flour and add the eggs, sugar, oil, and the yeast mixture. Mix the liquid ingredients together, using your fingers, until blended. Add the zest, anise seeds, and candied fruit.
Gradually incorporate the flour into the liquid mixture, mixing just until it is all combined. Then knead four or five times. The dough will be quite sticky; lightly dust the work surface with flour and use a plastic dough scraper to help you knead.
For the dough into a ball and place it in a bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and let it sit in a warm sot (68°-70°F.) until it has risen by half, about 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly oil two baking sheets.
Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Knead both batches slightly on a well-floured work surface (use no more than 3 tablespoons flour to dust the work surface) to remove any air pockets. Roll each half out between two sheets of parchment paper to form a 12 x 8-inch oval that is about 1/4-inch thick, and transfer them to the prepared baking sheets. (To do this, peel off the top piece of paper, flip the bread over onto the baking sheet, and remove the second piece of paper. Or roll the dough over a rolling pin, then unroll it on the baking sheet. The soft dough will stretch some, but don't be concerned).
Make a design on each loaf: Working quickly and using a sharp knife, cut a 2 1/2 inch diameter circle in the center of the rolled out dough, cutting all the way through the dough but leaving the circle in place, Then cut five rays out from the circle so the design resembles a sun. Let the dough rise in a warm spot (68°-70°F.) until it has risen slightly, about 30 minutes.
Bake the pompes in the center of the oven until they are golden and puffed, and have developed a scattering of small bumps on their surfaces, about 25 minutes.
Remove the pompes from the oven and transfer them to wire racks to cool. Serve at room temperature.
* Specialty Food Stores carry orange-flower water, or make your own.
Orange Flower Water
Pick orange flowers from the tree in the morning hours, when the sun is not yet too high or hot. Gather as many flowers as you desire--the more you collect, the more orange flower water you can make.
Gently rinse the flowers in cool water to remove dirt, insects and other debris.
Mash up the flowers using a mortar and pestle. Leave them to sit for several hours.
Make the Infusion
Place the macerated flowers in a large, glass jar. Add enough distilled water to the jar to cover the flowers. Place a lid on the jar.
Put the jar in a spot where it will receive full sunlight. Leave it there for two weeks. Add distilled water as needed, just enough to keep the flowers covered.
Check the scent of the infusion. Leave the jar in the sun for an additional week if you want to achieve a stronger fragrance.
Bottle and Use the Orange Flower Water.
Use a mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth to catch all the flower bits before you pour the fragrant water into smaller, sterilized jars or bottles. Add more distilled water to dilute the scent if you desire. Screw lids on all jars and bottles and, if you wish, add an attractive ribbon and handwritten label.
Store orange flower water in a cool, dark place.
Add orange flower to recipes as needed. Apply it to skin with a cotton ball to use as a toner. Pour some into your iron, instead of plain water, to lightly scent your clothes and linens.
Orange Flower Water Substitute
1 large orange, zest of, grated
1 cup sweet white wine
Soak grated zest (be careful not to grate the bitter white pith) for 24 hours in the wine.
Strain before using
Before retiring to bed, the children put their *sabots before the fireplace or around the Sapin de Noel (Christmas tree,) in hope that Pere Noel, will come to fill them with many little sweets.
Though now it seems, instead of a real wooden sabot, most people go to the pastry shop, and buy a "chocolate" wooden shoe, that is pre-filled with sweets.
Roast game or fowl served after midnight.
A selection of regional cheeses made from cow's, goat's or sheep's milk.
Special regional or rare wines.
Many people attend a special evening church service. They return home afterwards, may eat a meat-based meal, and open Christmas presents. Children are told that Pere Noël or the Christ Child brings the presents.
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