Christmas in France is dreamy. The twinkling lights, the warm mulled wine, the hustle-bustle of Christmas markets, and the beautifully decorated store windows; make it a magical time of the year to visit.
Every corner you turn, the spirit of the holidays greets you with mesmerizing visuals – the streets are lined with electric lights of all shapes, sizes, and colors, the stores are busy installing interactive scenes, and large Christmas trees are mounted in iconic squares. While cities like Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Cannes, and surtout Strasbourg certainly bring out its big guns, in French households it's a different matter altogether. Although not high on Christmas decorations, French people have a variety of Christmas traditions that might seem out of place to some tourists.
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With the holiday season upon us, let’s take a look at French Christmas traditions and how the French celebrate Christmas. Some things like Christmas trees and nativity scenes are common, whereas others are a little more unique such as oysters and gifts in shoes. You don't have to be in mainland France to celebrate the season à la française, you can easily replicate these traditions and practices chez vous.
Traditional French Christmas Celebrations in Paris
Christmas traditions in France vary largely on location. Being a cultural hotspot, Christmas in Paris is a mixture of various global elements with a side of French elegance. As elegant as the city itself, Christmas time in Paris is an enchanting experience. Every arrondissement has its own special charm.
The city of Light is well, filled with dazzling Christmas lights! And the warm smell of the holidays will drive you to eat even when you aren't hungry! Ice skating rinks at iconic places, some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and beautiful window displays (as well as the interior too!) at the likes of Galeries Lafayette and Le Samaritaine truly bring the city to life.
Many of the passages, the covered passages of Paris, are decorated for Christmas. Don't miss the Galerie Vivienne.
If you are going to spend the holidays in Paris for Christmas, check out my article on Paris in December and what to pack for Paris in the Winter. If you are staying through the New Year you will want to check out Paris in January as well.
Once you know where you are staying, make sure to check out my individual guides on all the Paris Arrondissements:
Traditional French Christmas Celebrations in the rest of France
When it comes to other parts of France, Christmas traditions vary according to the customs of the individual provinces of France influenced by the 1700s. In the Alsace region and the Alps, the region closest to Germany, outdoor Christmas trees are quite popular, along with torch processions of skiers and carrying lanterns to mass. Lorraine, in North-Eastern France, joyfully celebrates Saint Nicholas Day on December 6th with exchanging of gifts and candies, among other things.
In the west of France at Mont Saint Michel, locals and tourists can follow priests from the town to the top of the abbey for Christmas pilgrimages. In Brittany, the locals eat Christmas lunch instead of a Christmas Eve dinner like the rest of France. After the midnight Christmas Mass, the locals enjoy a light meal of buckwheat crepes and cream.
The region along the Pyrenees and the Spanish border have a French-Spanish Christmas. The presents in this region are usually brought by the three wise men (and not Santa Claus) and exchanged on January 6th.
Remember, if you are visiting France at Christmas time, Christmas Day is a public holiday and you will need to plan ahead for meals at restaurants. Do your research and most definitely make reservations ahead of time!
Provençal French Christmas Traditions
The Provence region is well-known for its elaborate processions based on the nativity scenes and French Christmas carols. The processions first began in the Middle Ages, and continue to be a big tourist attraction today. There is also a tradition of “little saints” or santons, little clay figures. They are used in nativity scenes, but the figurines also represent the “everyday” people in life like bakers, fishmongers, etc.
I have written an entire post on Le Gros Souper, the traditional Christmas meal in the South of France. In addition, there is also the Provençal tradition of a feast consisting of 13 different desserts symbolizing Christ and the 12 Apostles at the Last Supper. For these desserts, there is a variety of fruits, sweets, and nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, dried figs, and grapes, along with a cake known as Pompe à l’huile (olive oil bread or brioche). Usually beginning a week before Christmas, these desserts are placed next to the dining table and everyone is supposed to taste all of them in order to bring in luck for the coming year.
French Christmas Characters for Kids
Like many other countries, French children also open Advent Calendars filled with chocolates from the beginning of December. (Advent calendars are extremely popular with adults too!) Santa Claus is popularly known as le Père Noël (Father Christmas), Papa Noël, or Saint Nicolas. In France, according to law, every child who writes to Santa receives a response from him in the form of a postcard. The French postal service takes care of this and ensures every letter receives a response.
Another Christmas figure in the stories is le Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), the opposite of Père Noël. While Père Noël is a jolly old man who comes bearing gifts, Père Fouettard is dressed in black robes and punishes naughty children. Another legendary Christmas character is La Tante Airie. Found in Franche-Comté, La Tante Airie is believed to be the reincarnation of the medieval aristocrat Countess Henriette de Montbéliard. The kind woman is always accompanied by her trusted donkey, Marion.
Christmas Tree and Carols
In France, a Christmas tree is called le sapin de Noël. The majority of the French bring home real trees. The local stores start selling real, lush trees around the beginning of December and there is a fresh scent of fir and pine lingering in the air. Companies also started doing Christmas tree rentals where the tree arrives with roots intact and can be replanted after the holidays.
In terms of what the French put on their Christmas trees. Instead of putting up a lot of ornaments, they often use red ribbons and small white lights. These replace the traditional apples and candles that used to be used “in the old days.”
As for Christmas songs, there are similar songs as English carols and French Christmas carols are a fun way to learn basic French. The carols are usually sung in cathedrals from Advent until the New Year. Caroling on the streets is not a very French thing to do.
The nativity scene, also known as la crèche, is popular in the South West of France. The elaborate setups of the traditional manger scene include more than just Baby Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and animals. Some scenes in the Provence region feature entire villages. Before the 25th of December, the manger does not include Baby Jesus. He arrives at midnight on December 24th, just in time for the Midnight Christmas Mass.
French homes are tastefully decorated with twinkling lights to bring in the festive season. You'll see advent wreaths (Couronnes de l'Avent) throughout homes in France. The wreath made of greenery (pine tree branches) and ribbons is placed on a table. There are 4 spots for candles and every Sunday leading up to Christmas a candle will be lit.
If a French home has a fireplace, they will typically burn cherry wood yule logs often sprinkled with red wine (for the smell!).
In Paris, the lights can be seen at major boulevards, squares, and every place in between while smaller towns will have them at town centers, outside churches, and along lampposts. The department stores are where everyone goes to see spectacular and rather extravagant displays of holiday lights and Christmas scenes.
Lastly is the tradition of mistletoe (le gui), a popular French Christmas decorative item hung above the door to bring in good luck. HOWEVER, unlike the United States, the traditional kissing under the mistletoe is for New Year's Eve celebrations and not Christmas! The same is true for Christmas cards. Traditionally the French send out New Year's cards instead of Christmas cards. (Also, never wish anyone a Bonne Année (Happy New Year) before midnight on New Year's Eve as this brings bad luck!)
Midnight Mass and Christmas Day
Instead of visiting the church on Christmas Day, the French tradition involves holding a Midnight Christmas Mass. Though not everyone who celebrates Christmas is Christian, and of those who are, not all attend the midnight mass. Many churches hold a little reception after the mass for the church community to socialize. Christmas days are reserved for spending quality time with the whole family. Some go to church again on Christmas morning and then enjoy a meal with friends and loved ones.
The Traditional French Christmas Dinner
Christmas is incomplete without a hearty meal and laughter all around the table. The biggest meal of the holiday season is eaten on Christmas Eve, the night of the 24th. Known as le Réveillon de Noël, the Christmas feast is prepared with fancy ingredients and delicious flavors that are reserved for such festivities.
Christmas meals are a traditional affair, and as such, the French pull out all the stops for it. With carefully planned Christmas dishes, the tables are decorated with care to offer an excellent experience to loved ones.
The French meals are a lengthy affair and for good reason. It usually begins with Champagne and amuses bouches (like foie gras) and is replaced by a selection of wines throughout the meal. While the main dishes differ from family to family, smoked salmon, oysters, escargots, and caviar are the most popular starter dishes.
For the main course, fowls and game meats (quails, ducks, pheasants) are usually found on small tables whereas bigger French families prefer a large chicken, roast goose, roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, or even roasted ham with a side of vegetables cooked with garlic and butter, provincial herb-sauteed potatoes.
The meal is finished with la Bûche De Noël, the classic French Christmas cake. Shaped like a yule log (or Christmas log), this rich chocolatey sponge cake is wildly popular and chefs often bake their own version every year. Over the years la Bûche De Noël has evolved and pastry shops offer a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors, and even as an ice cream cake too!
French Christmas Cheer
When it comes to cocktails and drinks, the most important libation is champagne! While Champagne is still an expensive drink, the French love to splurge a little on their Christmas meals. People often start with a Kir Royale, which is made from champagne and crème de cassis or blackcurrant liqueur and then move into straight champagne. Or the fancy French 75.
At the markets, it is all about the vin chaud, spiced mulled wine the is gently heated. The fragrance is hard to resist!
In France, small gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, unlike in many countries where gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day. French kids usually receive their gifts from Père Noël on Christmas Day. In North America, a typical Christmas scene is incomplete without a thick stocking to hold all your presents but in France, children put shoes near the fireplace to be filled with candies and gifts.
Today, a lot of households simply put the gifts under the Christmas tree and hang stockings for decorations. Gifts typically range from wines, perfumes, and jewelry to books, sweets, and fruits. Visiting Christmas markets to select unique handmade products is also a favorite tradition of most families.
Christmas markets in France are absolutely fabulous! Each market is unique and offers something a little different from the others. The oldest Christmas market and the biggest Christmas market in France is the one located in the city of Strasbourg. As Christmas nears, Strasbourg transforms itself into a twinkling town straight out of a fairytale. Also known as the Capital of Christmas, the markets here date back to the 12th century and are well-placed in the heart of the city with spectacular backdrops of the Strasbourg Cathedral. Within close walking distance of each other, the markets offer a variety of different themes.
In Rouen, the chilly winter weather is perfectly counterbalanced by the warmth brought by the Christmas markets, thanks to their endless supply of mulled wine and spicy foods. In the north, between Lille and the Belgian border, Roubaix has been holding France’s first sustainable Christmas market since 2014. Offering locally produced handmade products from recycled materials, this is the perfect place for everyone keen on preserving the environment. Lille also has a great “regular” Christmas Marché in Place Rihour.
The town of Montbéliard offers very German-influenced Christmas markets. From children caroling with crowns of candles on their heads to a Santa Claus competition, Montbéliard’s holiday season is full of surprises.
The most artistic market is that of Lyon’s. Full of fun energy, the Old Town also hosts the Fête des Lumières or the Festival of Lights along with the Christmas Markets. With spectacular shows in the first week of December, the city is filled with magic and dancing lights.
La Fête des Rois
But wait, it’s not over yet! The Christmas season stretches right into the new year until 6th January, when the French celebrate the Fête des Rois (The Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany). Making merry with la galette des rois, a flaky pastry from Brittany, the festival is not an official holiday but is recognized in offices and schools.
The galettes have little figurines known as feve hidden inside it. The one who finds the feve in their slice is crowned the King/Queen for the day.
No matter where you celebrate your festive season, it is a wonderful time of the year to bring in a few of the traditions of France to your home this Christmas.
I hope your Christmas is merry and filled with the chocolatey goodness of a typical French Noël.
Joyeux Noël ! (Merry Christmas in French!)
How about you? Have you spent Christmas in France? Do you try to replicate any French Christmas traditions in your home? Do share!
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