In Northeast France, the region of Alsace gets all the credit for being the cool, individual kid. Lorraine is overlooked by tourist books because it has fewer half-timber houses, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it chock-full of fascinating area specialties, and other customs absorbed from bordering Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. The biggest shocker was that Lorraine celebrates Saint Nicolas–the only region of 27 in France that does.
The problem is, Saint Nicolas is swiftly going the way of handwritten letters and Zazz seltzer.
Saint Nicolas quick facts:
- He’s not Santa (that’s Père Noël, or Father Christmas) but an actual version of the original Saint.
- The Lorraine legend says he saved three lost children whom an evil butcher had attacked. They were salted and ready to cook.
- On December 6th, which is oddly the anniversary of his death, the Saint brings candy to the good kids. Bad kids risk a whipping from Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), who was the evil butcher.
- Bakeries also cook up massive amounts of spice bread and paint Saint Nicolas on them in frosting. Glory be.
In just the last 10 or 15 years Saint Nicolas began to fade into obscurity in Lorraine, and the people started putting up Christmas trees. I don’t know what has caused the change. It could just be natural progression, as most of France is Christian and celebrates Christmas. I have a sneaking suspicion that it could also be related to the massive amount of American Christmas advertising and films that are broadcast around the world. Whatever the reason, Christmas is coming in strong, and I don’t think Saint Nicolas can hold out for much longer.
There were still some lively signs of Saint Nicolas this year. The parade in Thaon-les-Vosges (population: 8,200) was so impressive that it took over an hour to pass me, and included not one but TWO American-themed floats. Nancy really blew it out of the water with floats from every country that celebrates the holiday, a packed central place Stanislas lit with a Saint Nicolas renditions of a bat-sign, and roads crowded with people regardless of whether the tram was coming at them or not. Also fitting in what I call “France’s Pennsylvania,” nearly every float was pulled by a mini tractor.
Lorraine is far from undiscovered, untainted countryside, but it has a laid-back charm and its own quirks. On Saint Nicolas I was greeted with a chocolate when I climbed the bus steps for my ride home–something I certainly wouldn’t encounter in any of the big, fancy French cities, and the kind of thing that warms you up on a cold Vosges afternoon. I’d hate to see something so incredibly Lorraine, the celebration of a Saint who once saved three kids from a good roasting, go down the tubes.
The next thing you know, they’ll stop eating lardons. Then where would we be?