Christmas and Epiphany are some of the most fun holidays in the world. Santa Claus and the Baby Jesus are important parts of the celebration, but they are different depending on where in Canada or France you live. For example, turkey is not eaten for Christmas dinner in Canada, unlike in France, and some typical French gifts do not exist in France, such as clothes and money.
Epiphany (Épiphanie /La Fête des Rois)
La Fête des Rois (The Kings' Feast) is a traditional French celebration of Epiphany or the twelfth night (January 6th) when the three kings (also known as the "three wise men" or "Magi") arrive to greet baby Jesus. The tradition has its roots in Roman times when revellers would take to the streets once a year wearing masks to escape the constraints of their social class; even today, this festival has become one of France's New Year's national holidays. It is not, however, a holiday observed in Canada.
La galette des Rois (the King's cake) is a traditional French cake, filled with frangipane and baked into a round shape. It usually has a surprise trinket (fève). This trinket or figurine often represents the Christ Child. The cake signifies unity among Christians because it’s shared by three kings—the number three symbolising trinity. A prize is presented to the person who gets the figurine after the cake is cut. Though eaten all over France and Canada, it is said to have originated in Provence.
Image credit: Hervecuisine.com
French-Canadian Christmas Customs
French-Canadians have their own way of celebrating Christmas. They don’t have an elk on top of their Christmas tree. They put an advent wreath under the tree instead, with candles that they light one each week until Christmas Eve when they light all four candles. When the person has all the candles lit, they can take the wreath down and put it up on the tree. It represents Christ's birth in Bethlehem.
On Christmas Eve, they go to church and then eat some food and exchange gifts under the tree, which is always decorated according to Canadian custom; often holding lots of red felt products such as bunnies, mittens, etc. Everyone sits around singing songs together called "Noel." In Canada, there are many similarities between Christmas songs that are sung in French. However, they are not the same songs that are sung in France.
Franco-Canadians are also known for having huge parties on December 26th (Boxing Day), where they exchange large amounts of food among friends and family gathered around a long table. Many rural areas across Canada, including much of southern Ontario, still observe many customs imported by Franco-Ontarians who settled these regions beginning in the late 19th century. There was initially significant hostility against these settlers, but after several generations, most Ontarians accepted them as fellow Christians, observing largely similar customs, albeit with certain regional peculiarities (such as why some people dip their turkey into soup!). Commonly observed traditions include: attending Mass on Christmas Eve with relatives; gift-giving occurs on Saint Nicholas' Day (December 6th) instead of Christmas morning. Guests may bring gifts wrapped in white paper with a colourful ribbon attached, accompanied by candy and toys for children.
In Quebec, the night before the new year ends with an intimate event in which people bring their pyjamas and pillows. It's called "Le Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre."
The celebrations in France
Christmas in France is a time to spend with family and friends, catching up on all of the news while enjoying a five-course feast. Wine and spirits are often included, but gifts are less common. In early December, the Place de la République became a miniature version of Ottawa’s skating rink on the Rideau Canal. Christmas trees are decorated around December 8, and Advent candles are lit during each subsequent weekend.
On Christmas Eve, expect to see families with kids dragging baguettes and logs of bûche de Noël under their arms to make it home on time for the traditional turkey feast. Some festive Canadian traditions have made it to France, including ice skating on the Eiffel Tower and Lyon's iconic Fête des Lumières.
The big day is December 25th—spend Christmas Eve out on the town with friends and family, followed by Midnight Mass. It’s not unheard of to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas again as a large family gathering or further festivities by attending another church. In France, children leave shoes out for Papa Noël (Father Christmas) to fill with gifts, rather than hanging up stockings by the fireplace. On Christmas Day, the French may attend church services and then exchange gifts. Families gather for a traditional meal that usually consists of oysters, foie gras, and turkey. Traditionally, after the meal, guests play a game of Monopoly before opening their gifts from under the tree.
Also, gifts are often exchanged on Christmas Eve, December 24th, January 1st, or even January 6th, and it is usually the children who receive the presents from Santa Claus, while parents usually give practical gifts such as clothing to their offspring. Some families also have a special meal on Christmas Eve.
After New Year's Eve parties in Paris's streets, most people return to school and work on January 2.
So while we’re in the holiday spirit, there’s no better time to share with you the meaning of Christmas and Epiphany. Happy Holidays! Check out our Instagram to learn more about these holiday greetings.
About the author
Stephanie has a knack for making language learning and teaching fun and engaging. She holds a Master of Arts and a Bachelor's Degree in French Studies and is fluent in three languages. The writer has lived in France, Ghana, and Canada, and enjoys reading, travelling, and writing about her adventures.