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Christmas in deeply rural France, now and then

Seasons turn

Christmas in France is not the frenzy that seems to come over England and the US. Especially in deeply rural France where life was tuned to the seasons and agricultural life for so long that it is difficult to see much change. Farmers will plough on Christmas Day if necessary. In the old days the custom was that part of a log should be used to make the wedge for a family’s plough, in order to bring good luck for the coming harvest. The rest of the log would be burnt as the Yule Log. And in some households wine was sprinkled on the log as it burnt in the hearth for days on end. Advent is marked by a candle that is lit each Sunday and of course the Advent calendar for children is now very popular. Another mark of Christmas is the crèche, the crib and the stable, the shepherds and the wise men. Sometimes life size, these displays are outside churches and in some cases the wise men are added as they arrive later for 6 January.

In the small village near us Christmas trees are distributed to all houses and shops that have a street frontage. That is true for all of this area of the Dordogne. They can be decorated, as you like or left just green and fresh. Seasonal food appears in the supermarkets, many many presentation boxes of chocolates which are absent the rest of the year. Coffrets of nuts and fruit, richly glowing. 13 different types of fresh and dried fruit, nuts and traditional sweets to symbolise Jesus and his 12 apostles. Bottles of sweet white wine which will be chilled to drink with slices of foie gras.

Food

The big meal for French families is on Christmas Eve and known as Le Reveillon. This can be before or after Midnight Mass. The menu will include oysters, a goose, perhaps a capon stuffed with minced pork, sometimes a turkey. Certainly some cheeses, and here the local cheese is flavoured with walnuts. A medieval recipe that has had some innovation to tweak it. It is very similar to a Port Salut but flavoured with noix de Périgord. The cheese is made in the abbey in Ėchourgnac.

Everyone is glad to be inside with an excellent meal and warmth from the fire. Logs were cut in the summer and stacked ready for the winter.

 After the cheese, a chocolate buche de Noel for dessert.

Traditionally presents were given on New Year’s Eve, by traditionally I mean more than 800 years ago, for the Christmas period with Advent and then the celebration of the birth of Jesus was deeply religious. You let your hair down and danced and played silly games at New Year.

And here are a couple of extracts from Book 2 of The Tangled Queen to show how Christmas was spent in 1219, by Isabella of Angoulême and Hugh. Not yet married but edging towards each other.

Christmas Eve Feast

The Christmas Eve feast was ready, the hall glowing again with candles and firelight. The hot spiced wine was ladled out, and more and more dishes of food arrived, covering the long table. Pork and a mustard sauce, pies filled with minced meats, eggs, dried fruit and spice, a simple stew of chicken and carrots, bread and soft cheeses. Two pewter dishes of fine white salt stood in the middle of the loaded table, with two decorated spoons alongside them. Isabella picked one up and sprinkled a few grains onto her plate.

Midnight Mass

Everyone gathered for the procession to the chapel, close by the Great Hall, just two stories high, and a steepish slope up to the entrance where Father Robert waited for them, his long black woollen robe and cloak swallowed up by the gloom. Inside the simple limestone, brick and plaster building was lit with candles, and everyone crowded onto the stone seats and the Mass began.

              Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meam

              After it was over and offerings had been made at the altar and assurances from Father Robert that he would join them tomorrow to bless the Christmas meal they made their way by starlight back down the slope, holding onto each other, feeling their way through the snow.

              ‘In some chapels they have the priests and people singing like angels.’ Mathilde was happier now that everyone had worshiped and prayed. It was fitting that the household should come together.

              ‘I can sing,’ Joan slipped away from the adults; she had slept a little during the Mass, propped between her mother and Hugh and was anxious to prove that she could contribute to Christmas Eve with more than games.

              She stood by the wall nearest the door, lit by the first set of candles dripping wax now and casting a wavering light.

Farewell Advent, Christmas is come

Farewell from us both all and some

In Bethlehem that fair city

A child was born of a maiden free

That shall a lord and a Prince be.

Farewell Advent, Christmas is come

Farewell from us both all and some

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