Christmas in France (Central Europe)
Updated: Jan 17
A Brief History
As with other countries in Europe, Christianity came to Gaul (present day France), by way of western expansion of the Roman Empire. In France, Druidism was replaced with Paganism due to initial Roman influence, but then Christianity pierced through the darkness of both.
The first Church of Christ was established in 160 AD by Irenaeus in Lyons. There were ten persecutions of the Early Church. Despite the prior persecution by the Roman emperors in other areas of the empire, Christians in Gaul had been exempt from such horrors. However, in AD 177 Marcus Aurelius, ordered the first persecutions at Lyons.
This persecution finally came to an end in AD 312, when Constantine proclaimed Christianity to be the official religion of the empire.
Although it had been more than 300 years since the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, Charles the Great aka Charlemagne, was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day 800 AD. Unlike Spain and Portugal, Charlemagne had managed to keep the Muslim from overtaking the empire. This prevented the spread of Islam in France. Charlemagne had, incredibly, been able to build an empire which included most of Western Europe, much like the Romans. But, unlike the Romans, who rarely ventured beyond the Rhine into German territory, Charlemagne conquered most of the western part of Germany. As was a common practice among conquering groups in these days, forced conversion was the norm. Thus the pagan Germans were forced to become Christians.
Almost three hundred years later, France would become involved in the Crusades. The Crusades lasted from 1095 to 1272. The motive was to remove the Muslims from the Holy Land and acquire access to Jerusalem for the thousands of Christians who made regular pilgrimages there. After centuries of bloody battles, and ultimate defeat, these Holy Wars have been seen in retrospect as a waste of lives and resources. However, there were many positive effects of the Crusades.
The most important was its effect on commerce. The need for transporting men to the East increased shipbuilding and the presence of these men in the East increased the flow and thereby the demand for goods from the east, such as silk, spices, tapestries, perfume and precious stones.
Another was the demise of feudalism. Thousands of noblemen sold their lands in order to raise funds for their crusading expeditions. Thousands of these noblemen never returned which meant their fortunes reverted to the Crown. Many more returned broken in spirit and health-- some joined cloisters and endowed their remaining wealth to these institutions. The effect of the decline in numbers and influence of the nobility was especially notable in France, given that the crusades originated there. This decline directly attributed to the increase in power of the Crown.
As the East was more advanced than the West, another positive effect of the crusades was that it increased intellectual development in Europe. During their expeditions, the Crusaders were exposed to more advanced science and thinking. They brought these new ideas back to Europe, thus leading to the Revival of Learning and the beginning of the Renaissance.
Throughout the next five centuries, Christianity continued to be practiced by the majority of the population. However, the French Revolution ushered in an era of dechristianization waged against Catholicism and eventually all forms of Christianity. By means of various laws, crosses, iconography, bells and any religious processionals were banned. Anything in public life that represented Christianity in any way was replaced or renamed. For instance, all religious holidays were replaced with state holidays, and any street or town names with religious connotations were renamed. Even the Gregorian calendar was rejected and replaced with the French Republican Calendar. Priests were murdered and/or imprisoned. Ultimately, the French government established two new state religions instead: the Cult of Reason and the Cult of the Supreme Being.
During what became known as the Reign of Terror, led by Maximilien de Robespierre and his cohorts, more than 20,000 people were guillotined. These men instituted the Cult of Reason, intended to replace Christianity with atheistic and humanistic ideals. At the height and shortly before the demise of Robespierre’s influence, Robespierre started his own cult---the Cult of the Supreme Being--as a reaction to the extremism of the Cult of Reason. He proclaimed it the new state religion.
In the end, it was Robespierre’s extreme ideas and power-lust that lead to his execution. When he had his two closest friends guillotined for disagreeing with him, it finally dawned on many other members of the Convention and the Committee on Public Safety (the two legislative bodies), that they could be next. Thus, Robespierre was arrested and executed.
Two years after the French Revolution ended, Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated religious freedom with the provision that there would not be a state religion. Since that time, France has become very much a secular country. Despite France’s secularism, more than 60% of the population identifies as Christian.
During the holiday season in France, churches display a crib scene, often with life-size figures. Some churches even host live nativity scenes. Because churches were closed and nativity scenes were outlawed during the French Revolution, many people began making their own figures out of clay. The figures were called santons. Today, santons are still an important symbol of Christmas, particularly in Provence, a region of southeastern France. Special fairs are held in December to enable people to buy more figures for their displays, and santons are passed down from generation to generation.
The Sapin de Noël (Christmas Tree) is an integral part of Christmas in France. They were introduced to France by the German princess Hélène upon her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. Holly and mistletoe are also a popular part of French décor at Christmastime.
Though less and less families attend church service on Christmas Eve-- la Messe de Minuit, or Midnight Mass—is followed by le Réveillon.
Le Réveillon is usually the largest feast of the season which replaces what Americans call Christmas dinner. Réveillon usually consists of foie gras, oysters and turkey or goose stuffed with chestnuts. The traditional dessert is Bûche de Noël, a sponge cake decorated like a Yule Log.
An ancient holiday tradition that some French people still observe is the burning of the Yule Log until New Year’s. Over time it has come to be celebrated with the consumption of the cake form in modern times. The Yule Log or Bûche de Noël is a traditional dessert served in France, Belgium, Canada , Vietnam and any former French colonies.
In addition, French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace, in the hopes that Père Noël (aka Papa Noël) will fill them with gifts. Candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys will also be hung on the tree overnight. In some regions there's also Père Fouettard who gives out spankings to bad children (an equivalent of Santa Claus giving coal to the naughty).
In 1962, a law was passed decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. When a class writes a letter, each student gets a response. 'Joyeux Noël' is Merry Christmas in French!
France is the largest country in Western Europe, renowned for its art, food, cheese and wine. It has had a great and tumultuous history. The French Revolution brought about good and bad changes for France. However, the effects of secularization brought about by the French Revolution still manifest themselves today. In 2001, France passed the Anti-Cult Law (aka the About-Picard law), which was said to prevent groups of a “cult-like character” from using “psychological and physical” subjection to recruit and retain followers. It is feared this law will be used to stop all religious activity in France.
Pray that the minds and hearts of the French people would be softened for the Lord.
Pray against human trafficking and for immigrants. Also pray for unity and peace for French believers and for fullness of joy in their walk with Christ Jesus.