In the XIXth century, festive meals featured as part of the family Christmas celebrations. The two main characteristics of these festivities were the abundance and variety of dishes. Whether from the town or the country, middle or working class, each family would ensure that the table was set with the most appetizing dishes it could afford.

In rural areas where families were often more numerous, preparations for "réveillon" and for Christmas dinner generally began in November with the fall butchery. Two weeks before Christmas, the mother, assisted by her eldest daughters, rolled up her sleeves to prepare delicious pastries. In town, however, preparations did not begin until December 10 when food and provisions needed to prepare for these two lavish meals would be bought.

In the XIXth century, festive meals featured as part of the family Christmas celebrations. The two main characteristics of these festivities were the abundance and variety of dishes. Whether from the town or the country, middle or working class, each family would ensure that the table was set with the most appetizing dishes it could afford.

In rural areas where families were often more numerous, preparations for "réveillon" and for Christmas dinner generally began in November with the fall butchery. Two weeks before Christmas, the mother, assisted by her eldest daughters, rolled up her sleeves to prepare delicious pastries. In town, however, preparations did not begin until December 10 when food and provisions needed to prepare for these two lavish meals would be bought.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

In the XIXth century in both France and Canada, as soon as the weather got cold, pigs, beef, calves and poultry were slaughtered to supply the household with all kinds of meat.

During these butcher’s days, the animals were carved up into different cuts of meat. Filets, roasts, hams and pigs’ knuckles, cutlets, chuck steak, ribs or loins, chickens and the famous turkey were put in hermetically sealed containers to freeze, buried in the snow, or were stored in the "root cellar", a sort of cold room which was at one time used as a refrigerator. Care was taken to pickle several large pieces of fat in brine in stoneware jars, in anticipation of the soup and baked beans that would be prepared for the daily meals.

During this period of intense activity, all the smoked meat for the réveillon, Christmas dinner and other events, was also prepared. Blood pudding and white pudding, sausages, patties, meatballs of finely minced meat to be served in a stew with pigs’ trotters, tourtières or meat pies, crackling or potted meat and headcheese or pâtés would be prepared from traditional recipes passed on for generations from mother to daughter. Read More
In the XIXth century in both France and Canada, as soon as the weather got cold, pigs, beef, calves and poultry were slaughtered to supply the household with all kinds of meat.

During these butcher’s days, the animals were carved up into different cuts of meat. Filets, roasts, hams and pigs’ knuckles, cutlets, chuck steak, ribs or loins, chickens and the famous turkey were put in hermetically sealed containers to freeze, buried in the snow, or were stored in the "root cellar", a sort of cold room which was at one time used as a refrigerator. Care was taken to pickle several large pieces of fat in brine in stoneware jars, in anticipation of the soup and baked beans that would be prepared for the daily meals.

During this period of intense activity, all the smoked meat for the réveillon, Christmas dinner and other events, was also prepared. Blood pudding and white pudding, sausages, patties, meatballs of finely minced meat to be served in a stew with pigs’ trotters, tourtières or meat pies, crackling or potted meat and headcheese or pâtés would be prepared from traditional recipes passed on for generations from mother to daughter.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

This nocturnal meal, eaten after the Midnight Mass in France and Canada, originally consisted of a simple snack of biscuits or a piece of tourtière, along with a hot drink. With the years, this snack has been transformed little by little into a more lavish and elaborate meal. The same dishes that are served at Christmas dinner are also served at réveillon, which is essentially limited to family.

In Canada, the custom of Christmas réveillon varies depending on the family, the period and the cultural context. For Francophones living largely in rural areas, Christmas réveillon was not known until the 1930s when family festivities began to take shape with the commercialization of the holiday season.

For Anglophones and city dwellers, on the other hand, Christmas réveillon began to be part of family celebrations much earlier, around 1875. The tendency to feast on Christmas Eve became more and more pronounced with the custom of the decorated tree and the exchange of presents.

This nocturnal meal, eaten after the Midnight Mass in France and Canada, originally consisted of a simple snack of biscuits or a piece of tourtière, along with a hot drink. With the years, this snack has been transformed little by little into a more lavish and elaborate meal. The same dishes that are served at Christmas dinner are also served at réveillon, which is essentially limited to family.

In Canada, the custom of Christmas réveillon varies depending on the family, the period and the cultural context. For Francophones living largely in rural areas, Christmas réveillon was not known until the 1930s when family festivities began to take shape with the commercialization of the holiday season.

For Anglophones and city dwellers, on the other hand, Christmas réveillon began to be part of family celebrations much earlier, around 1875. The tendency to feast on Christmas Eve became more and more pronounced with the custom of the decorated tree and the exchange of presents.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Diorama of Christmas Eve festivities

Reconstruction of a Provencal Christmas Eve with its huge meal served on three tablecloths (Nativity, Circumcision, Epiphany) and lit by three candles representing the Trinity. The dinner is nonetheless modest, made up of home-made goods from the "mas" (farmhouse): snails, artichokes and celery with anchovy paste, mullet with olives...and thirteen desserts: cachat, griddle cakes, apples, pears, dried figs, grapes, almonds, nuts, candied citron, quince, light and dark fudge...

Photograph : B. Delgado
Collection : Museon Arlaten, Arles, France

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.


In contrast to the "réveillon", Christmas dinner in Canada was a midday meal and was part of Francophone as well as Anglophone family tradition. Friends and relations were always present in large numbers on the guest list for the occasion.

More than at any other time, an abundant variety of dishes were the highlight of this great family celebration. Of course the menu would include pea or garden vegetable soup, meats dressed in different ways as well as pastries served only at Christmas time. To wash down this hearty meal and liven up the party, imported or homemade drinks were also served in enormous quantities.

Today this meal is served in the evening, or even sometimes on another day altogether, because of constraints on guests like health, distance and travel, the capricious climate...

In contrast to the "réveillon", Christmas dinner in Canada was a midday meal and was part of Francophone as well as Anglophone family tradition. Friends and relations were always present in large numbers on the guest list for the occasion.

More than at any other time, an abundant variety of dishes were the highlight of this great family celebration. Of course the menu would include pea or garden vegetable soup, meats dressed in different ways as well as pastries served only at Christmas time. To wash down this hearty meal and liven up the party, imported or homemade drinks were also served in enormous quantities.

Today this meal is served in the evening, or even sometimes on another day altogether, because of constraints on guests like health, distance and travel, the capricious climate...


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Wassail, which was much liked by the English, accompanied hearty Christmas meals. The word comes from the expression Waes haeil, which in the vernacular means, "be thou well" or "to your health". This non-alcoholic beverage was served in large bowls and was replaced in the XVIIIth century by punch made from fruit juice and highly alcoholic spirits. Ale, beer and porter were also favorites for family celebrations.

Well-to-do Francophones bought wines imported from France as well as liqueurs and spirits. Homemade wines and beer, however, replaced these expensive alcoholic drinks for much of the Francophone community. Starting in the fall, wine from potatoes, cherries, rhubarb, sarsaparilla and, of course, the famous malt beer made from home-grown barley, were made according to recipes passed down from generation to generation. These drinks, served in large glasses, were considered a sign of hospitality and conviviality during the festive season.


Wassail, which was much liked by the English, accompanied hearty Christmas meals. The word comes from the expression Waes haeil, which in the vernacular means, "be thou well" or "to your health". This non-alcoholic beverage was served in large bowls and was replaced in the XVIIIth century by punch made from fruit juice and highly alcoholic spirits. Ale, beer and porter were also favorites for family celebrations.

Well-to-do Francophones bought wines imported from France as well as liqueurs and spirits. Homemade wines and beer, however, replaced these expensive alcoholic drinks for much of the Francophone community. Starting in the fall, wine from potatoes, cherries, rhubarb, sarsaparilla and, of course, the famous malt beer made from home-grown barley, were made according to recipes passed down from generation to generation. These drinks, served in large glasses, were considered a sign of hospitality and conviviality during the festive season.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Among the great variety of meats and delicacies available at Christmas, a stuffed turkey most certainly occupies pride of place on the traditional menu. Contrary to what one might think, this dish did not come from Europe. In fact, before being domesticated, the wild turkey could be found in southern Ontario, some parts of Quebec, several American states and even in Mexico. At the beginning of the XVIth century, the Spanish took this bird back to Europe from Mexico and it was soon domesticated in Spain, France and England.

While turkey has long been considered a traditional holiday meal by Francophones, Anglophones tended to serve stuffed roast goose as the main dish at Christmas dinner. The oldest dish that Anglophones enjoy at Christmas time is mince pie, whose origin dates back to the Middle Ages. In the original recipe, this oblong-shaped pie contained a mixture of finely chopped poultry, pheasant, partridge and rabbit. Later, sugar, apples, cider, raisins and candied oranges and lemons were added. Over time, the meats were eliminated leaving only the sweet ingredients.

Among the great variety of meats and delicacies available at Christmas, a stuffed turkey most certainly occupies pride of place on the traditional menu. Contrary to what one might think, this dish did not come from Europe. In fact, before being domesticated, the wild turkey could be found in southern Ontario, some parts of Quebec, several American states and even in Mexico. At the beginning of the XVIth century, the Spanish took this bird back to Europe from Mexico and it was soon domesticated in Spain, France and England.

While turkey has long been considered a traditional holiday meal by Francophones, Anglophones tended to serve stuffed roast goose as the main dish at Christmas dinner. The oldest dish that Anglophones enjoy at Christmas time is mince pie, whose origin dates back to the Middle Ages. In the original recipe, this oblong-shaped pie contained a mixture of finely chopped poultry, pheasant, partridge and rabbit. Later, sugar, apples, cider, raisins and candied oranges and lemons were added. Over time, the meats were eliminated leaving only the sweet ingredients.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

While "réveillon" is generally limited to members of the immediate family, Christmas dinner, in contrast, gathers friends and relations together around the table. In some families, married sons and daughters are routinely invited on Christmas day to the paternal household of one or other of the spouses. The following day, the married children host the members of their respective families in turn along with uncles, aunts and cousins who visit throughout the holiday period.

Until recently, Christmas was a time for great family festivity and was for visiting friends and relations. Guests sometimes stayed several days with one or other of their hosts.

Today, all kinds of social constraints have brought about changes in the timing, the location and the number of participants in these festivities, but Christmas celebrations are still among the most important in the collective consciousness.

While "réveillon" is generally limited to members of the immediate family, Christmas dinner, in contrast, gathers friends and relations together around the table. In some families, married sons and daughters are routinely invited on Christmas day to the paternal household of one or other of the spouses. The following day, the married children host the members of their respective families in turn along with uncles, aunts and cousins who visit throughout the holiday period.

Until recently, Christmas was a time for great family festivity and was for visiting friends and relations. Guests sometimes stayed several days with one or other of their hosts.

Today, all kinds of social constraints have brought about changes in the timing, the location and the number of participants in these festivities, but Christmas celebrations are still among the most important in the collective consciousness.

© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Christmas day cannot end without an appropriate evening entertainment. Not only Christmas songs and dances but also stories and legends enliven the evening. Other details like the Yule log and decorations add a further convivial note to the special atmosphere of Christmas.

On Christmas night, it was not unusual to see some 50 people or more squeezed into the paternal home to join in the family merry-making. No one wanted to miss the fun.

Christmas day cannot end without an appropriate evening entertainment. Not only Christmas songs and dances but also stories and legends enliven the evening. Other details like the Yule log and decorations add a further convivial note to the special atmosphere of Christmas.

On Christmas night, it was not unusual to see some 50 people or more squeezed into the paternal home to join in the family merry-making. No one wanted to miss the fun.


© 1995, CHIN-Canadian Heritage Information Network. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify how people, events, and ideas of the past shape the present;
  • Describe some Christmas traditions in Canada and their development, with examples;
  • Compare Christmas traditions between cultures, including Francophone and Anglophone, and over time;
  • Recognize that material history and popular culture are illustrations of historical change.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans