Advent & Christmas Traditions – Francis Foucachon
What are Traditions?
Traditions give us anchors to hold onto as time passes and as the pages of the calendar turn. Traditions are constants we can look forward to. Traditions connect groups and communities. They are the instruments to transmit beliefs from one generation to another, helping to tie the past to the present.
In France, the open-air Christmas market is one of these traditions that ties both old and young together, as from year-to-year, grandparents, children, and grandchildren make their annual pilgrimage to a concentration of many sellers’ booths that constitute a real little village called the marché de Noël. The marché de Noël brings excitement to the Christmas season early on. The tantalizing smells of hot crêpes wafting through the crisp, cold air, the enthusiastic voice of a vendor calling you to come buy some chestnuts cooking on a wood fire, the sweet music of Christmas carols as street musicians from L’Armée du Salut (the Salvation Army) sing traditional melodies, the joyous noise of the bigger-than-life personalities of ambulant merchants trying to entice you to come to their stand—all of this is part of the magic of an old tradition.
Not all traditions are equal, but Christmas traditions are among the most wonderful. Although some Christmas traditions started with pagan Roman practices, early Christians turned these pagan customs into glorious traditions with Christian meanings. Here are some of them from my French Protestant heritage.
La couronne de l’Avent, the Advent Wreath
My best childhood memories as I grew up in France in a Protestant family are from the Christmas season. This period started with Advent each year, from the Latin word Adventus, which means coming. It is a time of waiting and preparing for Christmas. It starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas when the Advent wreath, la couronne de l’Avent, is presented on the breakfast table for the first time. In my tradition, the Advent wreath is made up of fir and pine branches, red bows, and four red candles. The most important idea of the Advent wreath is in relation to the coming of Christ. The four candles sitting in the greenery of the Advent wreath symbolize the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Each candle is lit on each Sunday before Christmas. We have a larger candle in the center of the wreath representing the Kingship of Christ, or sometimes it is white, representing the perfection of Christ.
I remember one Advent when this tradition of the Advent wreath held special meaning. On the morning of Christmas Day, my father-in-law passed away. Our grief as a family was great, but I assembled my wife and our five children around the table where the powerful symbol of a tradition spoke to us. As I lighted the four red candles of the Advent wreath and then the white candle in the middle, I told my family, “Daddat is with His Savior, King Jesus; he is now without sin, like this white candle symbolizes; he is without pain; he is in the presence of the full Light of glory.” We will never forget that Christmas morning, when Heaven in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ seemed closer than ever, just a step away. When we particularly needed it, a tradition that was already anchored in place was a powerful teaching tool and comfort as it turned our eyes to Jesus.
The Symbol of Light
Jesus is the Light of the world. For centuries, my Waldensian ancestors used a candle emitting light in the darkness as their symbol. Their coat of arms was a central candle, representing Jesus, surrounded by seven small stars, symbolizing the seven churches in the book of Revelation. Underneath is the inscription Lux Lucet In Tenebris—The light shines in the darkness. Later, as they joined the Reformation movement, they replaced the inscription with the famous cry of the Huguenots, Post Tenebras Lux—After darkness, light. In a similar way, the four candles on the top of the Christmas wreath also symbolize the coming of the Light in the darkness. It starts with only a small light, one candle on the first Sunday. But then, more light appears on the second Sunday, increased light shines on the third Sunday, until the full light of the wreath shines brightly on the fourth Sunday. It is a beautiful tradition and a great reminder that Jesus is the only Savior and the true Light of the world. As the Gospel of John says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness.” We, as children of God and Christ’s ambassadors, are the light of Christ in the world, representing Him.
The Four Candles as Catechism
These four candles are also a short catechism, talking about the four most important stages of the Old Testament announcing the coming of Christ. The first candle is the symbol of the first Covenant between God, and Adam and Eve, as God forgives them and provides for their clothing and covering through the first sacrifice of animals. The second candle reminds us of the renewed Covenant between God and Abraham in view of the promised land. The third one is about God’s renewed Covenant with King David, preparing the way for the King of Kings, Jesus. The last candle represents the teaching of the Prophets who announced that with the coming of the King Jesus, justice and peace will come with a price. The wreath in the shape of a crown of thorns announces Christ’s crucifixion!
The Advent Calendar
The German theologian Johann Hinrich Wichern (1808-1881) is traditionally known as the creator of the Advent calendar. He ran a school for underprivileged children. The children kept eagerly asking him how long it was until Christmas Day. To help them visualize the days as they waited, he affixed four large white candles around the rim of a large wooden wheel to represent the four Sundays before Christmas, and then, in between each of the white candles, he set six small red candles to represent the days of the week. On each day leading up to Christmas Day, the children lit one candle, and each time, they sang a song and read a Bible text. That wheel evolved into the Advent wreath, and the red candles for the weekdays, accompanied by the short daily Bible stories, grew into the Advent calendar that showed scenes each day telling something about the coming of Christ.
As I grew up in a family of seven children who intensely anticipated Christmas, part of the excitement was to open the small window of the Advent calendar each morning before breakfast. Every day from December 1st through December 25th, one member of my family had the treat of opening a window of the calendar. I had my turn every seventh day. All of us couldn’t wait to see what was behind the small window, and each time there was a discovery of a new aspect of the Christmas story. Later, a piece of chocolate was added in front of each picture from the Christmas story. Needless to say, all of us were hoping that our turn would come on the day that had the largest window, since it had the largest piece of chocolate!
A very special breakfast was a part of my family’s Advent tradition each Sunday. All seven of us children were under strict orders to wait upstairs in our bedrooms until we heard Christmas music playing. The melodies of Christmas carols from the record player in the dining room would mean it was time to come out of our bedroom and descend to a table laden with a feast. The shutters were closed to ensure darkness; the only light in the dining room came from the Advent candles in the wreath, and from smaller individual candles that were inserted in a tangerine in front of each plate. We could hear the sound that we heard only once a year, that of the tingling bells of a small merry-go-round. Four delicate angels made out of brass sat above four candles that produced enough heat to make the four angels turn around and around and, with each turn, hit a small bell.
Advent breakfast meant another eagerly-awaited treat—the famous candy from Lyon called papillotes, an assortment of all kinds of chocolates such as hazelnut, pralines, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, as well as candied fruits. All of these were enfolded in their characteristic festive gold, silver, and vividly-colored shiny wrappers. A sweet bread with a marzipan center, French croissants, butter, and homemade jam would accompany hot cocoa drinks. The excitement of the first look at the festive table was followed with a series of exclamations of delight, shouts of “Oh, yummy! That looks delicious!”, and lots of laughing.
The Christmas Tree
In my French tradition, my father always put up and decorated the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. That means that we children saw it for the first time on Christmas morning. My understanding of the origin of the Christmas tree is that it was first a pagan tradition that 11th-century Christians transformed into a Christian tradition. In Alsace, in the northeast part of France, Christians would cut a small pine tree and decorate it with red apples as ornaments, the fruit itself symbolizing the sin of Adam and Eve, and the red color symbolizing the blood of Christ washing away their sins. Lights and other ornaments came much later. The tradition says that Hélène de Mecklenburg, who married the Duc of Orléans, brought the idea of ornaments on Christmas trees to Paris in 1837, and that Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, brought the concept of lights on the trees in the 18th century. Initially, and in my own home growing up, the only lights on the Christmas tree were real candles! We would light each candle after the midday feast on Christmas Day, and keep them lit for just enough time to sing a couple Christmas carols before quickly blowing the candles out—to avoid a larger unwanted larger flame! We did always have a long wooden pole nearby, with a wet piece of cloth at the end, just in case!
Tradition Upon Tradition
Christmas Eve was a very special time for both my siblings and my parents. Most French Catholics went to the midnight Mass. As Protestants we had our own Christmas Eve tradition. First, the children had an early dinner with something very special, such as eggs in aspic (a boiled half of an egg molded in a savory jelly made from meat stock), smoked salmon, quiche Lorraine, and the famous papillotes. After dinner, we all went as a family to downtown Lyon to the Reformed Church to attend a pipe organ concert, featuring majestic pieces from Bach. Then, we drove back home for a hot chocolate treat, followed quickly by bedtime, with the growing anticipation in our hearts of the morning and the opening of presents. Right before going to bed, we each put our slippers in front of the chimney.
While we were getting ready for bed, I remember seeing my mother setting two plates in the living room, and my father getting the Christmas ornament boxes ready. My parents’ tradition was that as soon as we got in bed, they would have a glass of wine, enjoy a lobster or crab dish, and then my father would bring in the Christmas tree and decorate it with old-fashioned ornaments and garlands. He would put the candles in place on the branches of the tree, ready to be lit the next day.
On Christmas morning, at the signal of a ringing bell and Christmas music, we would all run to the chimney to find our slippers full of goodies, as well as a wrapped present on the top of them. We were not rich and there were seven of us children who had to share any resources we had, but my parents always managed to buy each one of us a nice present, usually a toy we really wanted. It was always an amazing and memorable time of joy and excitement.
After everyone had opened their presents, we jumped in the car to go to a Christmas worship service at the Reformed Church of Lyon. After the service, we picked up my uncle and my two sets of grandmothers and came back home for the Christmas feast. My mother was an amazing and very well-organized cook. In my family, meals were regular, a daily ritual, and a very important aspect of life. Each meal was a daily mini-celebration that gave rhythm, continuity, smoothness, and an ordered flow to life. In normal times and in times of crises, meals helped bring stability and comfort to our lives. But the special meals, like the Christmas feast, were over-the-top; they were the best!
Our Christmas feast often started with an appetizer of a large, fresh, poached salmon, served on a platter with homemade mayonnaise and small steamed potatoes. Sometimes, the appetizer was a pistachio sausage baked inside a brioche pastry. The main dish that followed was the traditional Christmas goose, au jus, and stuffed with chestnuts and apples, accompanied with celery purée, chestnut purée, turnips au jus, and fresh green beans. The traditional cheese platter would follow; we enjoyed the best assortment of French cheeses and baguettes. The grand finale was the traditional bûche de Noël, a Christmas yule log cake. It is a heavenly flourless chocolate cake, rolled into a log with chocolate and whipped cream in every fold, and decorated with confectioner’s sugar to resemble snow on a Yule log. The origin of the bûche de Noël comes from the Middle Ages, when people would throw a very large log of wood in the fireplace to keep the fire going while attending the midnight Mass. Right after this amazing feast, we would all gather around the Christmas tree to sing Christmas songs.
Building Upon Traditions
The noun tradition has a Latin root from the word trader, which means to hand over or hand down. In the old French, the word tradicion meant transmission, presentation, handing over.
My parents’ Christmas traditions became mine, and my wife has embraced them, adding her own Christmas traditions to our family unit. It is a privilege for each new household to stand on the shoulders of their parents, and to present and transmit to the next generation their Christmas heritage from the past, and at the same time, build their own Christmas traditions, adding or changing certain parts as they build their distinct legacy. In the last few years, we have witnessed a young generation of Americans canceling their past history and replacing it with a narrative that is politically correct. In particular, Christmas has been robbed of its real meaning. As believers in Jesus, we have the privilege and the duty to maintain good and godly past Christmas traditions. And we have the joy of transmitting them to the next generation, as God’s Kingdom continues to grow, in view of the earth being filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2.14). This is what it means to build culture!
Joyeux Noël !
This article originally appeared in Digressio Express, Issue 2, Christmas 2021
About Francis Foucachon
Francis has a trio of passions—his faith, his family, and his food. He was trained to become a chef in the elite world of gastronomy in Lyon, France before being trained as a minister of the Gospel at the Reformed Seminary in Aix-en-Provence. He worked as a chef in France and Switzerland, and later created his own high-end restaurant in the USA. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America in 1987, and ministered as a church planter in France and in Quebec for 24 years. Francis now works with Huguenot Heritage in partnership with Third Millennium Ministries. He and his wife Donna have five children and twenty-four grandchildren.