In France, Father Christmas, or Père Noël, has to follow certain rules. As of 1962, a national law decrees that every letter written to him must be replied to by way of a postcard. Having duly received a response, children will then expect their requested gifts to be placed inside shoes laid out beside the fire on Christmas Eve. However, truly naughty kids still run the risk of finding only a lump of coal, put there by seasonal bogeyman Père Fouettard – a less popular figure these days - but still a lingering menace.
Other variations on popular European customs include the Nativity scene, which is usually a scale model representing the various biblical figures (and barnyard animals) said to be present at the birth of Jesus. In France, however, bourgeois provincial figures like the town crier and the village washerwoman are added to the tableaux and displayed beside Christmas trees in homes and churches across the country.
Since good food is truly appreciated in France, Christmas is treated like something of a championship. The main event is the mighty réveillon, a seemingly endless and punishingly rich dinner that tends to include scallops, truffles, oysters, caviar and paté. There are regional variations in the preferred meats and cheeses – turkey is a big deal in Burgundy, for example. And when it comes to dessert, many follow the extraordinary tradition of Provence, which involves serving no fewer than 13 sweet treats, including black and white nougats and an olive oil cake known as pompe à l'huile. And then of course, there is the fare served from stalls and carts at France’s spectacular centuries-old Christmas markets, from chocolate-dipped gaufreys (waffles) and roasted chestnuts to choux pastry doughnuts known as beignets and bredele biscuits.