Reveillon de Noel in France is traditionally the great feast that takes place on Christmas Eve just before the midnight mass at the local cathedral or church. This particular feast is a grand affair, and little expense is spared in creating the sumptuous delicacies that are put on the table. In 2012 and in 2014, I spent Christmas with a French host family in the Languedoc region in southern France. On this celebratory occasion, I had the opportunity to help my host mother and grandmother of 96 years of age in preparing this much anticipated Christmas Eve dinner. The day before, I remember going to the market with my host mother to pick out various cheeses, charcuterie (cold meats and sausages), fruits, chocolates, and in particular oysters.
We returned that afternoon to the chateau of my host family (a conglomeration of large buildings to be exact, the oldest of which was a small chapel that housed the remains of a converted Visigoth).
Once we had returned, I lent my host grandmother a hand in preparing the foie gras, using a recipe that she’d had for decades.
Oysters and foie gras are traditional dishes for the Christmas Eve feast, though goose, boar, and lobster might also be among the spread on the table.
After everything was prepared, we all adjourned to the large sitting room where the master fireplace was. There we had all set out our shoes according to custom and rather than under a tree, there were various assorted sizes of presents gathered around each pair of shoes. We each took our turn opening our gifts, and though I cherish all of those given to me, I can say without a doubt that my favorite was that of my host grandmother, Genevieve. She had presented me with a beautiful Laguiole knife with a wide blade and black wooden handle as well as a case. Though it would take me a few days to fulfill the necessary compensation, I eventually gave her a coin in return in order to secure good luck (as is the custom when receiving a knife in France). Once everyone had opened their gifts, we promptly took our places at the table with much anticipation. And there we stayed for seven or so hours, whereupon we delved into the delights of the season. The experience was delectable if not divine. And, between each course or two, we would take minor breaks to sip on rare liqeurs or smoke cigarettes, in true French fashion. The strangest of these "degustations" was a liqueur made from fermented lizards that someone in the family had brought back from South America. The exquisite meal finally ended around two in the morning, whereupon we all retired happily to our beds. The following morning we had a light breakfast of baguettes and jam and played several rounds of petanque, a type of lawn ball game. After a short siesta in the afternoon we all drove to the Eglise de la Madeleine to watch a rendition of the nativity story. Memories such as these warm my heart around Christmastime…memories I cherish in a country I call my other home.