Sure, we’d all love to be in Paris for Christmas. But when we can’t get to the City of Light for the festive season, at least we can bring some of its yuletide sparkle into our own home. Read on for how to celebrate Christmas à la parisienne …
Lower the Lighting
Lighting is one of the most important elements when it comes to creating a Parisian mood. Parisians, by and large, love their lights low and moody. Some social historians wonder if this goes back to medieval times when the sun’s weak rays barely made their way into the city’s labyrinthine lanes nor through the narrow windows of the timber-beamed houses. As Paris morphed into the City of Light, Parisians seemed to balance out this increasing external brightness with internal softness — for example, muting bulbs with ornate lampshades. Fun fact: César Ritz made sure his new hotel’s lamps were adorned with peach fabric — he believed the colour most enhanced a lady’s complexion. These days, venture into any of the city’s most sumptuous and inviting interiors — you’ll note that lighting is beautifully soft. Legendary Parisian designer Jacques Garcia — the man behind such swoon-worthy visions as Hôtel Costes and Ladurée on the Avenue Champs-Élysées — is also a fan of dim lighting, for its atmospheric quality as much as for its flattering effect.
If your home doesn’t have a twinkling chandelier of its own, simply turn off any too-bright lights, and create a glowing ambience with antique-look lamps and candelabra, as well as fairy lights strewn over shelving, mantels, and mirrors. And in the Christmas tree, of course! If you don’t have a real tree (which is très Parisian), create the aromatic mood with a fir-scented candle.
Add More Sparkle …
Consider gold for the accent colour in your decorating scheme, for it instantly adds a touch of Parisian chic. Think of the most glorious Parisian interiors; all likely have gilded touches that up the glamour quotient. The process of gilding became popular in the late seventeenth century when Parisians realised that a subtle and chic way to brighten their rooms was with a palette of white (or a soft blue, green, or yellow) and gold, and the look has been a classic Parisian interior style ever since. It’s also a foolproof colour scheme for Christmas, although if your senses crave something a little bolder and brighter, mix in some splashes of ruby — say, with red crystal wine glasses or glossy red charger plates.
And Some Fleurs
Flowers also allow you to add extra, vibrant Christmastime colour. The poinsettia — known in France as the étoile de Noël for the star-like effect of its red flowers — is a particular Parisian favourite.
So too is traditional holly, which will whimsically decorate your table with pretty pops of berry-red, or amaryllis (above), if you’d prefer something more sculptural and striking.
Pop the Champagne
We all know that the French believe champagne can — and should — be drunk for any reason at all, be that commiseration or celebration. (Merci, Coco Chanel and Napoléon for the original notion.) But the drink is particularly suited to Christmas, when it adds all the more sparkle to the proceedings. For the most Parisian effect, pour the bubbles into a coupe glass.
Leaving aside the legend that Marie Antoinette’s left breast inspired its design … the coupe is popular in Paris for the way it allows you to inhale the champagne’s aroma as you sip, making for a much more sensuous experience. To make that experience all the more special, add a dash of crème de cassis, which creates the classic rose-tinted aperitif of a kir royal.
Feast for the Senses
Speaking of the senses, a Parisian Christmas feast is one that appeals equally to the mouth, nose, and eyes. A French Christmas, in fact, is more about the food than even the gifts. Many families celebrate their main Christmas meal on the evening of December 24, and it can go on for hours and hours, thanks to numerous courses best savoured slowly and mindfully. It’s easy to search for ‘French Christmas meal ideas’ online and come across mouthwatering menus created by French or Francophile foodies. But generally, you’ll want to start with apéro to complement the champagne; think a variety of canapés such as gougères (cheese puffs) or a super-cute sapin feuilletté (puff pastry Christmas tree — see below), and a platter of oysters, served with a mignonette dressing.
From here, move on to starters — say, coquilles Saint-Jacques or creamy chestnut soup. Your main course will likely be a roast of some kind, served with, perhaps, gratin dauphinois and green beans.
And now comes le fromage, which the French traditionally eat at this point in a formal meal, rather than for pre-meal nibbles. Splurge on beautiful French cheeses in a variety of tastes and textures, and serve on a platter with a scattering of dried fruit and nuts, and slices of baguette. But save some room for …
The Icing on the Cake
The Bûche de Noël — or, Christmas log — is said to date back to around 1870, when a Parisian pastry maker was inspired by the Christmas Eve ritual of burning a log in the fire (a tradition that can in turn be traced back to the winter solstice rituals of ancient Celts). As fireplaces became smaller, the practice started to die out … and so the Christmas log moved from the hearth to the table, in the form of a rolled sponge cake decorated in lashings of chocolate and dustings of sugar to appear as a snow-fluttered log.
These days, the competition among Parisian pâtissiers to create the most inspired bûche is fierce. Creativity is such that many logs are only so in name; these Christmas bûches are all sorts of flights of gastronomic fancy, such as fairytale-like horses and carriages, or storybook mountain chalets, or macaron-laden Ferris wheels. But you can still find many logs that take you right back to the origins of this wonderful Parisian tradition — and many bakers around the world offer Christmas logs at this time of year. Alternatively, recipes are plentiful online, and the cake is relatively easy, and lots of fun, to make.