The Wordsmith

Le Réveillon, from Fast to Feast

Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve are two key dates in the French festive calendar, and both follow a longstanding set of specific codes. These traditions vary wildly from one culture to the next.
© Jean-Baptiste Gurliat/Ville de Paris

There are some words that sound particularly enchanting. One such example is réveillon, the celebration of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, probably because it rhymes with other festive terms including flonflon (“oompah”), lampion (“paper lantern”), and cotillon (“confetti”). However, it originally referred to a dinner eaten late in the evening – no matter what day of the year. In fact, the word réveillon comes from the verb se réveiller, which means “to wake up.”

If we go even further back to the Latin root, we find the verb vigilare, which gave us veille (“watch”) and vigile (“vigil”). In his Dictionnaire universel of 1690, lexicographer Antoine Furetière defined réveillon as “a meal eaten in the middle of the night, after having stayed awake dancing and playing.” It wasn’t until the early 19th century, as Alexandre Grimod de La Reynière attests in his 1804 Almanach des gourmands, that the word was regularly associated with Christmas Eve festivities. (And it was only in the early 20th century that the term was used to refer to a meal served on New Year’s Eve.)

It was the late Jean d’Ormesson who coined the following chauvinistic phrase: “Traditions – like women – are made to be both respected and pushed around.” With this in mind, while the French eat turkey at Christmas, this dish is not as traditional as one may think. It was actually borrowed from the Americas after the conquistadors discovered this flightless bird when arriving in the New World in the late 15th century.

Since then, the turkey has also become an unwilling star of Thanksgiving, a holiday celebrated in the United States on the fourth Thursday in November, to pay tribute to the English pioneers who landed in America in the early 17th century. For many years, turkey was a luxury meat reserved for the aristocracy. But in the 19th century, stuffed and roasted turkey became the favorite festive dish in France. It is only very recently that oysters, lobster, smoked salmon, and foie gras have found their way onto the menu in French restaurants and households. And not so long ago, in the 19th century, sausage, blood sausage, and pigs’ trotters were served at hearty rural celebrations.

The Yule log, on the other hand, has a long and illustrious past. The consumption of this dessert, which symbolizes a pagan rite linked to the celebration of winter, is recorded as far back as the Middle Ages. From Belgium and Lebanon to Quebec, Switzerland, and Vietnam, it adds the finishing touches to Christmas meals in many Francophone countries.

In the Christian tradition, festive celebrations were preceded by a period of penance. Before the revelry of Easter came the long fast (40 days) of Lent; meat was forbidden on certain days and replaced by fish. Hence the habit – still deeply ingrained in many people’s minds – of abstaining from steak and lamb on Fridays, in memory of the Passion of Christ.

In each of the Abrahamic religions, the lives of their followers are defined by alternating fasts and feasts. Certain foods and practices are either forbidden or sacred, depending on the circumstances.

On Shabbat, the Jewish weekly day of rest, the most devout Jews do not work, do not use money, and even refrain from everyday tasks such as using electricity or telephones. Driving a car is not allowed, either. As for food, it must have been cooked before Shabbat. As part of Rosh Hashanah, New Year in the Hebrew calendar, which commemorates the creation of the world, apples, pomegranates, squash, dates, and honey are used as part of the ritual. This two-day festival ushers in a ten-day period of penitence (no meat, no wine) until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Meanwhile, Muslims do not eat turkey, but instead celebrate Eid al-Adha with a sheep. According to Islamic tradition, this commemorates the sacrifice that God asked of Abraham to test his faith. In a way, practicing Muslims continue their réveillon for a whole month, as they must wait until sunset to break their fast and feast throughout Ramadan. On the other hand, there is no merrymaking on the first day of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar), which heralds the start of the Muslim New Year. This day previously began a sacred period during which all fighting was forbidden (haram in Arabic).

The Chinese New Year is a time of countless festivities. Celebrations are spread over two weeks and culminate in the Lantern Festival. Events include a lavish New Year’s Eve dinner, where the dishes have a very strong symbolic value. Fish – synonymous with abundance – promises that there will be no shortage of food in the coming year.

In the United States, where all the world’s traditions coexist, New Year’s Eve is celebrated more in the streets than at home. At the stroke of midnight, with thousands of people gathered in city centers – in Times Square for some New Yorkers – fireworks light up the sky. And before the clock strikes 12 in many American cities, the shift from the old year to the new is marked by the lowering of symbolic objects, such as crystal balls, to the ground.

As you can see, there are countless ways to celebrate your réveillon!

Article published in the December 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.