My Top 5 Recommendations to Celebrate Christmas
- Let's get crèche crazy!
The nativity crib is a tradition from the South East, but it is not just the traditional baby Jesus, Marie and Joseph but also whole village scenes with characters depicting village people, old trades and traditions. Doing a short crèche tour across the small villages and hamlets around Albi is also a great opportunity to discover some beautiful architectural gems by candlelight.
2. Hear the nadelets in my birth town Castres.
The tradition inherited from the middle ages of the nadelets, meaning ‘little Christmas’ in the Occitan local language refers to the tradition of Christmas concerts where carols used to be sung with the church bells accompaniment. Today in Castres (Tarn) you can still hear the bells concert. Close your eyes and imagine listening to the bells concert seating comfortably in a woolen blanket surrounded by Christmas lighting and while sipping a glass of hot spicy wine or a chilled champagne! Listen here.
3. When was the last time you went to a church concert?
Listen to one of the many classical music concerts in the impressive Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d’Albi or why not attending the Christmas midnight traditional mass. Despite being a secular country, France loves to stick to the old Christian practices, and many families still go to the traditional midnight mass before opening presents or before eating the traditional reveillon (Christmas Eve dinner). Listen to one of the concerts here.
4. Let’s make our Christmas feast!
When staying at our Maison, we'll go shopping at the local market to buy all the necessary ingredients to prepare our Christmas feast made from local products.
On the shopping list you will find a variety of food, more on the meat side than vegetarian:
- un chapon de noël, (a capon – a castrated cock fowl fattened for eating) from a local farm. Here some suggestions to prepare and cook capon
- un bloc de foie gras.
- some Chasselas raisins called ’le raisin de Noël’ (Christmas grapes – a late harvest from end of October) to either enjoy at the end of the meal or use as part of a recipe like Cailles aux raisins de Chasselas (Quails).
- a sweet white Gaillac wine to accompany foie gras and your desserts or a sweet Sauterne.
- Dark chocolate, cacoa powder and plain biscuit to make my mums traditional recipe of chocolate truffles.
- Red Gaillac and Bordeaux wine.
- Une buche de Noël (a yule log) or chocolate dessert. Enjoy some chocolate by one of the best French ‘Craftsman’ in cooking and pastry making. The chocolatier Yves Thuries in Albi and Cordes-Sur-Ciel has revealed his special Christmas chocolate edition around the theme of the North Pole. Not just delicious, it is also a treat for the eyes. Some creations here.
Do you know why is the traditional Christmas cake in a shape of a wooden log?
Mainly in the South of France, past generations of families from the countryside used to burn a log in their homes from Christmas Eve until New Years Day to bring good luck for the coming harvest. Today everyone prefers the chocolate version!
5. Enjoy the feeling of Christmas in a small town.
At Maison Nénette, we also recreate a friendly and convivial atmosphere around the table while enjoying the life style made in the South West, sipping local wines and champagne (not local!) in crystal glasses and eating from the gold and white porcelain service de table from Limoges for the candle light feast. Based in the historic centre of town, you feel like a local.
My Childhood Memories
Christmas brings an array of childhood memories for me and today I share with you a picture of myself in my late teens, and my beloved auntie Nénette, who our guesthouse in Albi is named after. In the picture, I am carefully placing slices of foie gras on toasted bread under the supervision of my tatie Nénette (auntie) while my younger brother, too impatient, begins to eat the first slice.
Christmas Legends of South West France
Before Christianity, 25 December used to correspond to the date of the winter solstice and cults held a celebration dedicated to the god Mithra. A sacrifice of a bull was made as an offering to the god Mithra in order to allow light to return after the long months of winter. Mithra was the god of light called the invincible sun (sol invictus).
The idea being that the light would conquer the darkness. An old tradition that the Catholic Church easily adapted to the symbolic of the Christ the true light according to evangile selon saint Jean, conquering the world of darkness.
Often the period leading to Christmas was in the old local tradition, a period to be feared rather than to be celebrated. With the longest night in the whole of winter, local stories often related to ghosts. It was apparently custom to dig a hole in the graves of your deceased family members to allow their souls to breathe on Christmas Eve.
Not just with ghosts, the local stories also refer to witchcraft, like the story of the ‘’cats’ shabbat.’’ Another local story relating to the Christmas period is cats gathering on Christmas Eve to worship the devil. In order to avoid your cat to be part of this ceremony, it was apparently custom to burn a few cat hairs from their tail or remove a white hair from the cat's fur.
Christmas was also a privileged moment and around midnight all hidden treasures would revealed themselves for a few minutes, again the idea of the light making it through the darkness of the night. These treasures were thought to have been hidden and buried by the Cathars of the region.
An excerpt from a local historian and blogger about the secret side of the Cathar legends, local tales and traditions.