Christmas in France: Traditions & Customs
Christmas is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world. In France, it is celebrated with all the grace and enthusiasm befitting the French. No other country in Europe celebrates Christmas in such a fashion. Even the American holiday is overshadowed by the festivities the French culture imbues into its celebrations.
Tourists from all over the globe travel to France in droves to experience the lovely tidings of the season. The foods are widely varied, from beautiful, handcrafted candies to the traditional Christmas Goose. The lights hung around the country are a wonder to behold, and there are many different celebrations throughout the season itself. It is essential to take a closer look to see why the holidays are celebrated so differently in France.
French Christmas Traditions
There are several French Christmas traditions sprinkled throughout this article, but I wanted to note the following in particular, as they are so wonderful!
Traditionally, if there is a Christmas tree, it is decorated with candies, nuts, and small toys by Père Noel (Santa Claus) when he visits on Christmas Eve. French children will leave their shoes by the fireplace or by the door for Père Noel to fill with gifts.
The Christmas tree is more of a German tradition, but many French families celebrate Christmas with a tree. Those living on the French-German border are more likely to have a Christmas tree.
In southern France, families burn a log from Christmas Eve until New Year's Day. Traditionally, a part of the burnt log was used the next year as a wedge for the family's plow to bring good luck.
Dates of Christmas Celebrations
Not only to Christmas traditions in France vary from other countries, but they also celebrate differently in each specific region of the country itself.
Some regions even celebrate other Christmas related festivals throughout the entire month of December, not just on the 25th. An example of this comes from the eastern and northern regions, where la fête de Saint Nicolas begins on December 6th and marks the beginning of the Christmas season. This celebration is generally focused on the tour of Saint Nicolas, sometimes substituted with a traditional Santa Clause, who goes from house to house distributing treats and bread to wise and courteous children. Alternatively, there is another figure, that of the Bogeyman, who accompanies Saint Nicolas and is said to hand out sticks to children who are unwise and generally poorly behaved.
The Lyon region, in the eastern central part of the country, holds a Fête des Lumières (festival of lights) from December 6th to December 9th each year. The tradition dictates that each home in the area place candles outside the windows to show their gratitude for the Virgin Mary. In addition to the townsfolk putting lights in the windows, the Basilica of Fourvière is lit up in many different colors, and the Place des Terreaux hosts a different light show each year.
Christmas trees are more of a German tradition (Oh, Tannenbaum), but some French families have adopted the custom. Those around the French-German border are more likely to put up Christmas trees, but some families throughout the country will also have them.
Traditionally, if a Christmas tree is present, it is decorated with candies, nuts, and small toys from Père Noel (Father Christmas) when he visits on Christmas Eve. Instead of stockings, French children will leave their shoes by the fireplace or door for Père Noel to fill with gifts. In the capital city of Paris, many shop windows will compete in brilliant Christmas displays, each trying to outdo the next with its opulence and joy.
The most common of Christmas decorations in France is by far the crèche (nativity scene). There are many beautiful handmade santons (little saint) figures crafted and sold every year in Marseille and Aix, where large Christmas festivals are held annually. These little figures first appeared during the French Revolution, when large nativity scenes were forbidden. The art of crafting them has been passed down through generations and is now a common family activity in the southern regions of France.
While some French homes have Christmas trees, the main focal point of Christmas decoration in France has always been the crèche, or nativity scene. Even now, in many Cathedral squares, the story of Christ’s birth will be re-enacted in both static and live nativity scenes. The live scenes involve puppets or actual actors portraying the characters to tell the incredible story of the birth of Christmas. If you are in France during the Christmas holiday, be sure to keep your eyes open for the wonderfully unique crèches on display!
Christmas & Food in France
French cuisine is world-renowned, and that does not change when it comes to Christmas meals. The French do love their food! The country is known for its rich culinary traditions which can be found in many of the foods prepared at Christmas time.
Though the food in France is so decadent throughout the country, Christmas dinner menus vary depending on the region. In fact, all French cuisine is highly regional, so it stands to reason that the same be true when it comes to what is on the table at Christmas. For example, in the Alsace region, many families will feast upon goose for their main table course. A Parisian meal may be made up of foie gras along with oysters. In Burgundy, many families have turkey with chestnuts. If you happen to be in France for a Christmas dinner, you are guaranteed to find a great meal, no matter which region you happen to be traveling in.
The desserts and treats are unrivaled, especially around the holiday season. The French are known for their beautiful display windows in stores, showcasing yummy Christmas treats. Candied fruits, cookies, and cakes are widely available as well as delicious bread. My personal French Christmas favorite is salted butter caramels.
The highlight of any Christmas dinner is not the main course, but the consumption of the thirteen desserts afterward. These thirteen treats are said to represent Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper. Tradition dictates that there should be at least thirteen different available treats, they all are served at the same time, and that each guest should try each treat. This is a tradition I could readily get behind!
How to Say "Christmas" in French & Other Holiday Phrases
In French, "Christmas" is Noël.
Here is a chart of other handy phrases related to the Yuletide Season!
Father Christmas (Santa Claus)
Le Pere Noël
Le sapin de Noël
Happy New Year!
le réveillon de Noël
Un sucre d’orge
un sucre d’orge
un bonhomme de neige
un bonhomme en pain d’épice
Traditionally, during Yule, families would burn a log from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. A part of this burnt log was used the next year as a wedge for the plow. This was supposed to bring good luck to the family and farm.
The old Yule traditions are dying out, but France still pays homage to this ancient festival each year. The southern parts of the country still burn the log each year, but in other regions, the Yule log is represented differently.
Questions & Answers
© 2009 Melanie Palen