If you can't make it to Paris this Christmas, add some French flavor to your holiday celebration at home with traditional French yule decor. Adapt French customs to your own family traditions or, like a true Francophile, plunge into another culture and emerge in a world of edible trees and tiny people, poised in wonder around a nativity creche.
Historically, France was a Catholic country, and the season of the nativity was celebrated with religious devotions as the center of the holiday. The custom of keeping an Advent calendar is still popular in France -- you can find one, or make your own, to count down the days until the birth of the baby Jesus. Children get to open one dated door or window per day during the four weeks that the Catholic Church sets aside to prepare for Christmas. A decorated paper calendar with tiny windows that fold open to reveal a seasonal image -- pine cones, a wreath or an angel -- marks the days. A shadowbox-style frame with little hinged doors or shallow drawers could hold miniature gifts: a light-up Christmas pin; a doll-size tree ornament; a small origami piece of paper money; a pair of snowflake earrings; or a toy train, delivered car by car over several days.
When the hearth was the heart of the home and a blazing log kept winter at bay, French families followed inherited rituals for cutting the tree, pouring libations over the log and burning it for specific nights. The buche de Noel is sliced and served now; the tasty French yule log is a sponge cake roulade, filled with coffee-, chestnut- or chocolate-flavored buttercream icing. More of the icing is troweled over the outside of the cake and scored with a warm fork to resemble bark. The ends of the cake, trimmed off neatly at a slant to look like a cut log, are stacked and frosted on or next to the cake like stumps or cut branches. The buche is a decorative -- and edible -- dinner centerpiece, embellished with marzipan mushrooms, candied holly berries, and green fondant leaves.
The nativity creche is a staple in a devout household, but this Christmas tradition is also a popular decoration that symbolizes the holiday. A creche is made of a stable and manger, in which the newborn Christ Child is placed, with a devout Mary and a watchful Saint Joseph hovering close to it. There are usually sheep and other stable animals, shepherds, angels and, approaching from a distance, three wise men on camels. But a French creche has so much more. Miniature clay figures -- santons -- made in Provence are added to the nativity scene. They might be politicians and other public figures; a farmer's wife with an apron full of eggs; skipping children with baskets of flowers; Marie Curie; a miller with a donkey and a burlap sack of flour; Saint Francis in his brown robes; a troupe of costumed Provencal farandole dancers. It's an exquisitely detailed free-for-all, with the sacred and the anachronistic crowding into the scene.
The Christmas tree is not the crowd-pleasing favorite in France that it is in the U.S. That tradition spread from Germany to England and then to America. The French are more likely to festoon the house with garlands of greenery, wrapped around stair rails, draped over doorways and twisted around windows. Natural seasonal embellishments, such as pine cones or berries, might be part of the display, but there's always a touch -- or a lot -- of glitter. Twinkle lights are woven into the branches, gleaming silver candlesticks with scented tapers are tucked into the greens on a mantel. A footed tureen, set in a circle of greens, might be heaped with silver and gold baubles arranged around a gilded porcelain fleur de lis. If you always decorate a tree, add silver fleur de lis ornaments to the glittery snowflakes you hang from the branches.