Thomas Edison not only invented the light bulb, but we also have him to thank for the lovely (or tacky) strings of Christmas lights we take for granted these days. Always ahead of the curve, in 1880, he strung up the first string of incandescent bulbs around his Menlo Park laboratory compound to attract the attention of commuters on the nearby railway, and ever since then, fairy lights (as the Brits call them), have been an intricate part of the December holidays.
Maybe you are a fan of them, maybe you’re not, but regardless of how they look to you, they are an infinitely better option than sticking candles in a tree or tucking them into your garland.
Back in the 1700s when Europeans first began lighting Christmas trees, the experience was a lot less relaxing then it is today and required some serious vigilance. The candles were only lit for a few minutes per night, while the families sitting on edge around the tree, readied themselves with buckets of sand and water.
Understandably by the early 1900s insurance companies refused to pay for the damage caused by flaming Christmas trees. So people (exceptionally rich people, that is) began to string lights on their trees. Eventually, when the lights became much, much cheaper, the masses began to light up their trees, homes and village streets.
Which brings me to twenty-first century France where lighted streets and villages are not only the norm but as much a part of the French holiday season as the Bûche de Noël.
Paris is always lovely by night, but at Christmastime it is exceptional. Take a look.
The French have a very unique brand of humor. Sometimes it annoys the heck out of me, sometimes it makes me stop and say, “What the f**k?!”, but most of the time it makes me smile and be glad to be able to experience absurdity from a different cultural perspective.
Yesterday at the Corrida de Noël was no exception. Humour à la française was out in force.
The bûche de Noël, absolutely the most hilarious déguisement of the day.
French smiley face?
Yikes! I got flashed by Mrs. Clause.
Fish head Santas? WTF!
Òu est Charlie?
WTF? Still not quite sure what this was all about.
Humour à la française: French humor
Imagine my delight when right after my Bûche de Noël afternoon with Marie-Françoise, I wandered into my corner pâtisserie to pick up some bread for dinner, et voilá, there behind the glass were these adorable bûchettes. As you know, j’adore anything mini in France, so I couldn’t pass them up. Four didn’t seem too lucky, so I bought five.
I love the family traditions and special foods surrounding Christmas in France, and this week I had the opportunity to learn a few family secrets. I headed to the kitchen of my friend Marie-Françoise to learn how to make la Bûche de Noël, well actually three different Bûche de Noël…each cake a guarded recipe from three special women, from three different generations.
La Bûche de Noël is the traditional French Christmas cake, shaped like a log, made to symbolize the Yule log. The custom of burning a Yule log at the end of the year dates back to at least medieval times, when villages would gather to celebrate the Winter Solstice. After the shortest day of the year, the log would be lit to acknowledge the coming daylight and to welcome the New Year.
In the early days the Yule log was a carefully selected tree (yes, tree, and traditionally a fruit tree). Once chosen and cut, the bulkiest end was placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree filled the room. The tree was lit using the remains of the Yule log from the year before and burned from Christmas Eve, through the Twelve Days, and was extinguished on the Twelfth night. Whatever was left was stored carefully in the house to bring good luck and protect the family from lightning, of course.
Interestingly, according to Marie-Françoise, the tradition of burning the Yule log in Paris, came to an abrupt halt when Napoleon and his city planning pal, Haussmann decided to gentrify the city by tearing down the disorder and getting rid of the riffraff. The familiar Haussmann apartments, many of which did not have chimneys, replaced them.
Lacking the fireplaces to burn the logs, the culinary-inclined Parisians headed to the kitchen (or perhaps the corner bakery) to create (or pick up) an edible log and continue the tradition in a slightly different way.
As for yesterday, it was great fun learning to make three different varieties of Bûche de Noël, all with sweet and meaningful family memories attached.