A Slice of France #7: Bûche de Noël, Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve Dinner, "Joyeux Noël"
"Bûche de Noël": The Yule Log Cake, Midnight Mass: before the feast, Christmas Eve Dinner: the "Réveillon", "Joyeux Noël": the movie.
“La Bûche de Noël”: The Yule Log Cake
I have a vivid recollection of Christmas meals shared with my family and more particularly of my favorite dessert: the “Bûche de Noël”, or Yule log cake!
As a kid, this cake always appealed to me, both because of its shape and decorations.
It looked like a small tree trunk with well-defined bark, sometimes with the beginning of a branch, and was the result of a tasty mixture of sponge cake and butter cream!
Different symbols were planted in the cream, giving the log both a mystical and festive character.
Most often there were small crispy meringues in the shape of a mushroom, a Santa Claus, an ax and a saw. I would eat the mushroom first!
The cream came in various flavors. I had a weakness for chocolate and praline!
But where does the tradition of the Yule log come from?
Originally a pagan custom
The origin predates Christianity, and relates to the winter solstice.
For the longest night of the year, a huge log was burned in the fireplace according to a very specific ritual, different from one region to another.
The purpose of this ceremony was to ward off bad luck and promote good harvests.
With the advent of the Christian religion, and the matching dates of winter solstice and Christmas, the tradition carried on, with a different symbolism however.
The expectation was that the log must burn for at least 3 days after Christmas or even better, until Epiphany (12 days after).
Little by little the custom changed.
As fireplaces were slowly going away, people would actually set a log on a dinner table along with various ornements in order to keep the tradition alive.
Around 1870, the log became…a pastry! No one really knows how this transition happened nor who came up with the first recipe.
It was only after the Second World War, around 1945, that the tradition of serving a yule log cake for the Christmas meal really took off, not only in France, but in several French-speaking countries as well.
Midnight Mass and Christmas Eve Dinner
The midnight mass is another childhood memories of Christmas time.
On Christmas eve, as I was feverishly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus the next morning, my parents and grandparents were preparing to attend the midnight mass.
They usually had a light snack and were on their way to church.
If I recall correctly, the mass was not really at midnight, but rather around 10 p.m.
Since I didn’t really understand its religious significance, the “night mass” (as it should actually be called) appeared very mysterious to me.
Meaning of Midnight Mass
The night mass is the second mass in the cycle of four masses that celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Nativity). The four masses are:
The evening mass, said after sunset
The night mass, known as the “Midnight Mass”
The dawn mass, celebrated before daybreak
The day mass
For Catholics, the Midnight Mass glorifies the passage from darkness to light.
Christmas eve dinner
Back home after the mass, my parents and grandparents would start the Christmas eve dinner ( known in French as the “Réveillon”), usually consisting of foie gras, oysters, lobsters, white pudding, and of course the matching wines.
The origin of the word “Réveillon” dates back to the Middle Ages, when people had to stay "awake" (“éveiller” or “réveiller” in French) for several hours after midnight in order to feast!
It’s also interesting to note that the celebration of New Year's Eve (called “La Saint Sylvestre” in French), which has no religious connotation, is also called "Réveillon", and gives rise to the same libations and gastronomic festivities, all the way to the wee hours!
Cultural Heritage: “Joyeux Noël”, the movie
“In December 1914, an unofficial Christmas truce on the Western Front allows soldiers from opposing sides of the First World War to gain insight into each other's way of life.”
I highly recommend this movie, especially at a time when the world is going through a rough patch (when is it not anyway?).
It’s a story about the absurdity of war, hope and redemption.
The soundtrack written by French composer Philippe Rombi is magnificent. I like in particular the song “I'm dreaming of home” featured above. Enjoy!
To all of you, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
A vous tous et toutes, Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!
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