French Christmas: St. Nicholas/Pre Nol


Figure 1.--This French Christmas card looks to have been made in the 1930s. It looks to be a generic (non-Christmas) postcard which just has a little label "St Nicolas" pasted on it. By the 1930s many French children were more familiar with Pre Nol than St. Nicolas.

There was an actual historical St. Nicolas. He was an important part of Christmas in France through the 19th and early 20th century. He was generally depicted as a revered clerical figure in France. He was commonly seen as an old man with a long beard. He was the friend of the children. Pre Nol or Father Christmas is a Christmas character invented during World War I (1914-18). I am not sure why this was done or who was responsible. It was not just France that adopted Pre Nol, he was adopted by many European countries. Pre Nol was different than St. Nicholas in that he has no relogious connotations. I am not sure just why Pre Nol was created and why he so rapidly replaced St. Nicholas. A French reader tells me that he was created by a charaterist and became quickly adopted by the French people. The French at this time adopted Christmas Eve (December 24) as the time for distributing presents to the children. One reader tells us that the children put their little shoes under the Chrismas tree and during the night the Pre Nol will be coming from the North country " the toys kingdom " and visit all houses to leave toys. So this Christmas character Pre Nol is quite recent.

St. Nicolas

There was an actual historical St. Nicholas. He was an important part of Christmas in France through the 19th and early 20th century. He was generally depicted as a revered clerical figure in France. He was commonly seen as an old man with a long beard. Sometimes he was given a red cape. He was the friend of the children. Througout Europe, St. Nicholas has traditionally been the patron saint of children. This has been true in Austria, England, France, Germany and many other countries. Traditions developed about St.Nicolas and Christmas and many of these traditions varied from country to county. In Austria and Germany Nicolas is Klaus, thus he was St. Klaus. (Explaining why St. Nicolas was the inspiration or Santa Clause in America. Until World War I St. Nicholas was the primary Chrismas figure for French children. St. Nicolas is also the patron saint of choir boys. A French reader tells us as a choir boy in the 1950s he wore a medalion with the Virgin Mary. Other boys had a St. Nicolas medalion. French authorities during World war I began phasing St.Nicholas out of Christmas in France. This took some time to do and into the 1930s St. Nicolas still appeared on cards. Today in Frane, however, St. Nicholas is virtually unknown to children.

Pre Nol Created

Pre Nol or Father Christmas is a Christmas character invented during World War I (1914-18). I am not sure why this was done or who was responsible. It was not just France that adopted Pre Nol, he was adopted by many European countries. Pre Nol was different than St. Nicholas in that he has no relogious connotations. I am not sure just why Pre Nol was created and why he so rapidly replaced St. Nicholas. A French reader tells me that he was created by a charaterist and became quickly adopted by the French people. A French reader tells us,"Practically all little French children under 6 years believe in the " Pre Nol " legend but all, big and little are expecting with impatience the night December 24, to recieve their presents!".

World War I

World War I was a disaster for France and other countries of iuncalcuable proportions. There were many changes in France following the War. The French Third Republic following the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) had instituted many reforms separaing church and state. The French Government after World War completed that separation. There were also many changes in social attitudes. One of those changes was an increasing concern wth children, undoubtedly growing out of the carnage of the War and the many displaced children. There were large numbers of orphans and widowed mothers who could not support their children. Here the American relief effort played a major role in feeding children in France and ther countries. The French people addressed this problem. Insituations were created to aid children. The child was considered as sacred to the nation. It was prohibited to employ childre less than 13 years old. Impoverished school children recieved clothes, shoes and could have his meal at the cantine. For Chrismas these children recieved a present and others items like clothes. This is why one rarely sees after World war phtograps of French children that are dressed in raged clothing or barefoot. (Similar programs such as free milk were instituted for children after World War II.)

Christmas Presents

The French at this time adopted Christmas Eve (December 24) as the time for distributing presents to the children. One reader tells us that the children put their little shoes under the Chrismas tree and during the night the Pre Nol will be coming from the North country " the toys kingdom " and visit all houses to leave toys. So this Christmas character Pre Nol is quite recent. In several counties , and in our former colonies , the 24 December is the date for children presents, excepted in Alsass ( France ). This date was choised because of the 13 days difference betwen the Julian and Gregorian calendar. (This is why the Roman Catholic/Protestant churches celrebrate on a different day than Orthodox churches.

Modern French Christmas

French children receive their gifts from Pre Nol who travels with his stern disciplinarian companion Pre Fouettard. It is Pre Fouettard who reminds kindly reminds kindly Pre Noel of just how each child has behaved during the past year. This tradition apperars to be fading. A French reader tells us, "For a long time we speak very rarely of the " Pre Fouettard " because , the children for Christmas are just considered as king." A French reader expalins about " Pre Fouettard " : Pre Fouettard was the opposite Pre Nol. The children were afraid of him! In past years, it could be said to the disobedient child that for Nol, Pre Fouettard will come instead of Pre Nol. My parents never said that to us. And now my grandchild doesn't know about Pre Fouettard. If we used this term (which sounds bad in French ) he could make out that it was not good for him. Actually this Christmas may be the last year he will still believe in pare Nol, so it is going to be a very special Christmas for us."

Finland

Pre Nol has been a big succes and in a lot of European countries the children know him very well. In Finland, the suposed home of Pre Nol has become an important touristic town. Charters are organized from many countries like England.







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Created: December 24, 2003
Last updated: 2:36 AM 12/23/2005