Christmastime in Paris
By Jerry Marterer
In France, “Christmas” is Noel and “Merry Christmas” is Joyeux Noel. Although much of their holiday season appears close to the American version, there are significant differences between the traditions. We have spent several Christmases in Paris with our family and we delight in French traditions and ways of celebrating.
My first holiday faux pas occurred a month before Christmas. After completing the purchase of our Paris apartment in the fall of 2003, we were about to return home. It was late November and before we left we wanted to follow what I assumed was a universal practice of giving a Christmas envelope to our gardienne (formerly known as a concierge). We stopped at our realtor’s office across the street to ask her how much of a gift is normal for Christmas. Her response: “For Christmas, nothing!” Before my shock could register, she followed with “It’s for New Years — and 50 Euros would be fine.” After reflecting on our gardienne keeping our mail and letting the meter readers in when we were gone for months, we decided on 100 Euros. We then went to the local stationery store to look for a card. We asked for Christmas cards. There were none, but there were many that read “Meilleur Voeux” or best wishes, which we learned is the standard New Year’s card phrase. In person, on New Year’s Day, the greeting would be “Bonne Année.” In the weeks before New Year’s Day, the French say, “Bon Fin de l’Année” or “Happy Year End.” (We picked up a lot of this by eavesdropping in cafés!)
In later years, we would often spend both Christmas and New Years in Paris. We noticed a certain holiday routine. Around the last week of November, the street décor is installed, first on small streets like the rue Cler, then to an ever-changing Champs Elysées spectacular with its own lighting ceremony. The illumination begins on the Place de la Concorde, where a giant Ferris wheel operates during the season. The decorations continue to the Arc de Triomphe. A Christmas market is normally set up along the same broad avenue, but in 2019, because of the “Yellow Vest” protests along the Champs Elysées, the market moved to the Tuilleries Gardens behind the Ferris wheel. The market is just as large as on Champs Elysées, but more self-contained and festive. As usual, it is all about food. Chalet-style buildings invoke alpine villages featuring sausages, smoked meats, artisanal cheese, crepes, cotton candy (which they call barbe a papa — papa’s beard), pastries and plenty of mulled hot wine (vin chaud). There are dozens of carnival rides too.
Spread around the city are a half-dozen smaller versions with carousels, pony rides and even a few petting zoos. It seems like the sellers of roasted chestnuts (châtaignes) are on every street corner. Outdoor ice-skating, known as patinage, is popular. The entire first level of the Eiffel Tower becomes an ice rink. It is usually filled with younger Parisians who are willing to climb the stairs to reach it. There is also a skating rink in front of the Hotel de Ville (City Hall), along with a curling rink and a large carousel. Parisians expect to be entertained by the city during the holiday. I am reminded of the adage in ancient Rome — “give them bread and circuses and they will not revolt.”
There seems to be less of a commercial feel than in the United States around Christmas and more of an adult focus. But the two largest department stores, Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, known as Les Grand Magasins, go all out, hiring celebrity designers to create lavish décor and window displays featuring animated puppet shows and themes from movies. There is a sense of competition between the two, taking up adjacent city blocks near the Paris Opera. Crowds walk slowly past the windows, which have their own musical theme and moving characters. Raised walkways provide a priority view to small children. Given the smaller city living spaces, tiny evergreens are sold in markets to be decorated at home. Santa Claus (Père Noël) is on duty in the department stores to hear children’s wishes. It is normal for each child to receive one present for Christmas, fitting the less commercial tradition. On December 26, the packaging in the recycling bin in our courtyard reveals the year’s most popular gift choices.
Rhythm of the season
School vacations run from around December 21 to January 6. In the U.S. families go to see the Nutcracker ballet, Christmas concerts and, in New York, the Rockettes. In Paris it’s the Cirque d’Hiver and the Musée Grévin. In front of the Bonne Nouvelle métro exit is the Cirque d’Hiver or winter circus. The immense round edifice looks like a circus tent with Greek columns that serve the intended purpose of supporting a big top without center poles.
This is a circus the way it used to be, with animal tricks, acrobats, high wire-walkers, clowns and circus acts from around the world, performing to the music of a full orchestra. The leotard was invented here by a trapeze artist of the same name. Generations of the handsome men and beautiful women of the Bouglione family have been performing in the show since 1930. The audience is of all ages. It is a national treasure to be taken in time and time again since the show changes every year. There are matinée and evening performances every day during school vacations and on weekends in other times. To the left of the building is the Clown Bar, a fixture for pre-show lunch or dinner featuring traditional bistro fare. The circus operates only in the winter months before going on the road in the summer, but between April and September the historic arena is used for staging operas and other spectacles in the round.
The Musée Grévin, a wax museum, was built in 1882. Every Parisian surely went there as a child. It is an eclectic mix of history, nostalgia and kitsch — Robespierre, Marat in his bathtub, Elton John, Mother Theresa and Pablo Picasso. Celebrities and politicians change with current events.
The next event of the season occurs on December 24. Gifts are exchanged and food again becomes the highlight. In homes and restaurants, Le Rêveillon de Noël, Christmas Eve dinner, is a collection of delicacies — caviar, oysters, smoked salmon and the pièce de resistance, foie gras. Dessert is always the Buche de Noël, or Yule Log, a cake decorated to perfection by the local pâtisserie.
Our apartment is too small for a grand family meal and we are not up for a midnight celebration, so our custom is a mid-afternoon lunch at our favorite brasserie. Restaurants begin closing late afternoon to prepare for their own Rêveillon.
We exchange gifts on Christmas morning and share toasted slices of panettone. (I know that’s Italian but it’s a family tradition.) Then, after church, we go to the Café de la Paix on the Place de l’Opera for a sumptuous buffet brunch.
In the days following Christmas, Parisians plan their next event, another Rêveillon, this one for New Year’s Eve, but it is known as the Rêveillon de Saint-Sylvestre, whose feast falls on January 1. Since the rest of our family has returned home by now, the two of us celebrate Sylvestre comme les Français at Le Florimond, our favorite neighborhood restaurant. Dinner begins at 9 p.m.; plenty of champagne is consumed and a multi course meal concludes at midnight with noisemakers, sparklers and kisses. They close shortly after and reopen a week later. There are fireworks and a sound and light show against the backdrop of the Arc de Triomphe.
It is now January 7; time for us to return to South Carolina. In Paris adults have returned to work and children are now back in school. The winter sales in all the stores start on January 8 and will run for nearly a month. A welcome rest is in order for Parisians because the 14-day winter break and ski vacations start February 22.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris.