The French like to believe that they invented Christmas. Their belief is that they did this shortly after discovering the secret of fire (Prometheus was from Marseille) and a little before they invented reggae music (which Bob Marley copied from Serge Gainsbourg). But we do admit grudgingly Christmas couldn’t have been invented by any other nation. The details of the nativity are unmistakably French: a family undergoing extraordinary inconvenience for the sake of a massive bureaucratic exercise; a leading lady who may or may not have been sleeping with her husband; and of course the Christ child himself, who grows up and promptly turns water into the national beverage. (The gospels don’t specify which kind of wine was produced at Cana, but locals assure me it was at the very least a  Château Latour or Miraval).


Children love a French Christmas because the French really do it right. In many countries, there is occasional loose talk to the effect that Father Christmas may not exist. In France, they do not permit this heresy. Since 1962, there has been a law that any French child posting a letter addressed simply to “Le Père Noël” must receive a postcard in return. Adults who break the spell are shunned. On the other hand, the French have found a way to make the Christmas magic work for parents, too: they have provided Le Père Noël with an evil sidekick. The terrifying Père Fouettard – literally “whipping father” – rides on the tailgate of the sleigh, delivering beatings to naughty children as Father Christmas delivers presents to the good. When you’re trying to get children to sleep on Christmas Eve, the Anglo-American song exhorting children to “be good for goodness sake” is not nearly so effective as “be good or Le Père Fouettard will come down that chimney and thrash you”. You have to hand it to the French.

Bon Noel to everyone! And, as the French say, Bon Fetes!


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