Chantal Thompson led an activity with French Christmas carols, hymns, and a lecture on the traditions and history of Christmas in France.
PROVO, Utah (Dec. 1, 2016)– Each year Chantal Thompson, a teaching professor in the French Department, organizes Noël en France, a popular activity centering on the history and traditions of Christmas in France. This year, students and faculty packed the JFSB auditorium for professor Thompson’s presentation.
“In France,” Thompson said, “the earliest record of Christmas is in the year 496 when King Clovis and his three thousand warriors were baptized on Christmas Day.” Ever since, the holiday has become part of French identity. Said Thompson, “Noël became a popular expression of respect and triumph when the king or a prince would enter a city or town regardless of the time of year.”
During the French Revolution in the 18th century it was forbidden to celebrate Christmas. All churches were ordered to stay closed on December 24th and 25th, and for a few years the French were forced to forego their traditional Catholic midnight mass on Christmas Eve. However, they remained just as committed as before. Thompson commented, “The celebration of Christmas is so deeply implanted in the hearts of the French that you just couldn’t do away with that, it didn’t even waver at such a blow.”
Thompson explained that before churches were shut down on Christmas, nativity scenes, or chrèches, were present only in churches, many being life-size. However, when the churches closed, the French simply made their own, smaller versions of the crèche, called santons, to display in their houses. Thompson noted that, “[Everybody] is represented going to the nativity set, because you couldn’t go to the church, and so they missed it so much they represented the whole town through the santons.”
The midnight mass, or messe de minuit, is perhaps the “oldest and strongest Christmas tradition in France,” said Thompson. “The church is all lit up, and the nativity scene is magnificent, but the cradle is yet empty. When the church bells strike 12, at the very moment that symbolizes the beginning and the end, baby Jesus is placed in the cradle of hope.” Traditionally, a male soloist then sings, “Minuit, Chrétiens,” a French carol written by Placide Cappeau in 1847. Attendees at this year’s Noël en France listened as Jim Shumway, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, sang the traditional song, accompanied by Professor Jeff Shumway.
After a humorous reading of a classic French story about a priest who rushes through midnight masses to get to the feast at the end, the symbolism behind many aspects of the gros souper feast –a meal eaten before midnight mass – were explained. The seven dishes on the table represent Christ’s seven wounds, and one of the dishes – lasagna – represents baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes. Lasagna noodles, Thomspon explained, are wavy to represent the frayed edges of torn fabric. The meal is followed by 13 desserts which, combined with the main meal, represent the generosity of God.
One of the most famous French desserts is la bûche de Noël, a cake shaped like a log that stems from the older Yule log tradition. People used to cut a large log and cover it in wine before lighting it on fire and keeping it burning for three days. Thompson said, “The log represents Jesus Christ, the wine represents our sins, so you pour our sins onto Jesus Christ, who burns them, consumes them, in charity.” After three days, the burning log was extinguished by holy water that the family would bring home from midnight mass.
On January 6th, the French celebrate l’Épiphanie, or the arrival of the kings in Bethlehem. To celebrate, Thompson says, “people make or buy in a pastry shop a special cake called la galette des rois [king’s cake] and inside there is a little token and whoever gets it in his or her [slice] gets to be crowned king for the day.” This is also the day that the three kings are finally placed in the nativity scene, which closes the Christmas season in France.
–Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’17)
Olivia covers events for the French & Italian Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in writing and rhetoric.