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Christmas in France: Traditions & Customs

Melanie has been interested in cultures, languages, and travel since her youth.

Paris at night is quite the sight.

Paris at night is quite the sight.

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, ranging 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. Let's take a closer look to see how and why the holidays are celebrated so differently in France.

There's a reason why Paris is known as "the city of lights."

There's a reason why Paris is known as "the city of lights."

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!

Shoes for gifts: French children will leave their shoes by the fireplace or by the door for Père Noel to fill with gifts.

Burning a log (for good luck): In southern France, families will often 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.

Lit-up trees line the streets.

Lit-up trees line the streets.

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. One 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.

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 in Paris are a regular sight during the holidays.

Christmas trees in Paris are a regular sight during the holidays.

Christmas Decorations

While Christmas trees are more of a German tradition (Oh, Tannenbaum), many French families still celebrate Christmas with a tree. Of course, those living on the French-German border are more likely to have a Christmas tree.

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. However, you will also see trees decorated in ornaments and lights around towns and cities.

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 crèche (or nativity scene) is a common sight in France during the holiday season.

The crèche (or nativity scene) is a common sight in France during the holiday season.

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!

What a wonderful scene to behold.

What a wonderful scene to behold.

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 yule log cake is a deeply rooted (pun intended) tradition in France.

The yule log cake is a deeply rooted (pun intended) tradition in France.

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" (and Other Holiday Phrases) in French

In French, "Christmas" is Noël. Below is a chart of other handy phrases related to the Yuletide Season!

In EnglishIn French

Merry Christmas

Joyeux Noël

Father Christmas (Santa Claus)

Le Pere Noël

Christmas tree

Le sapin de Noël

Happy Holidays!

Bonnes Fêtes!

Best wishes!

Meilleurs voeux

Happy New Year!

Bonne Année

Christmas dinner

le réveillon de Noël

wreath

Une couronne

candy cane

Un sucre d’orge

gift

un cadeau

star

un sucre d’orge

snowman

un bonhomme de neige

gingerbread man

un bonhomme en pain d’épice

angel

un ange

Yule Traditions

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.

Christmas tree and cupola at Galeries Lafayette in Paris

Christmas tree and cupola at Galeries Lafayette in Paris

© 2009 Melanie Shebel

Comments

Savana on December 03, 2019:

I loved these pictures a lot and they are incredible and very nice and amazing espesually that they are for christmas and MERRY CHRISTMAS everybody

poor guy on February 04, 2019:

not useful

Hope on December 15, 2017:

I love the picture and you did a really good job on your article

Leset on November 29, 2017:

Awsome article really helped me with an essay

Daniel Kolbin on January 18, 2017:

This really helped me on my presentation!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on December 25, 2016:

We Brits live just a short distance across the Channel from the coast of France, and yet it does seem that some traditions in France are quite different and much more regionalised. Indeed I'm sure that we in the UK have more in common with other English speaking nations and also with Germany (probably due to the Victorian influence of Prince Albert in popularising German traditions here). Nice to see however, that some of the more ancient and localised customs are respected and maintained in France. Thanks Melanie.

Jennifer Pena from California on December 25, 2014:

Great article the culture and history of France has always fascinated me.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 25, 2014:

France christmas is unique, using shoe instead if socks

Melody Lassalle from California on December 14, 2014:

This was really interesting. My Dad's side was from France. His father came here in 1907. I don't recall my grandparents having any French traditions that they still held onto.

Ilona from Ohio on December 04, 2014:

Christmas customs have always fascinated me. Thanks for this look at the French Noel.

torrilynn on December 19, 2013:

It intrigues me to learn of different customs and traditions that vary from my own. Thanks for this hub and helping me to gain insight on what you value. Up interesting and shared.

oldiesmusic from United States on December 17, 2013:

I love the sight of the creche.. it reminds people the true meaning of Christmas. And the yule log looks so rich and really yummy. Nice with a cup of tea to go along! :)

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on December 07, 2013:

Informative and awesome! I am walking with my dog K2, the Great White Kuvasz, on streets these days and taking pictures of all the decorations at night. I wish to experience the same walk with K2 in few cities of France. I don't think that is going to happen, but your hub brought me close to it.

bob on September 30, 2013:

this is awesome

H Lax on December 01, 2012:

Wow...I think I would love to visit France at Christmastime. I love nativity scenes and I love chocolate cake! Thanks for sharing. This was very interesting t0 me as many of my ancestors are from France.

Dianna Mendez on November 25, 2012:

This is beautiful. I had to stop and gaze awhile on that yule log cake -- how wonderful. I don't think I could eat such a masterpiece.

epic on November 25, 2012:

this helped me so much for my around the world project thanks so much

helpcharter101 on November 10, 2012:

this helped me heaps assignment due this week!!!!!!!!!!!

COOL PEORSON on October 22, 2012:

this is helpful for my homework thx

Egly on December 22, 2011:

It is perfect!

jada adams on December 14, 2011:

this is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo pretty

Lilly May Rose from Australia on December 13, 2011:

Great article. I would love to visit France for Christmas one year. I've only been to Paris once and loved it. The food is delicious!

chopsewi on December 10, 2011:

very informative,full of information and just as well i saw it.i needed to do a poster about christmas in france.FANTASTIC

ashley on December 09, 2011:

your website is the best

anonyomus on December 07, 2011:

Thanks this is really helping me on a school paper for social studys thnx a lot!:)

Jacob on December 07, 2011:

this is going to help me get a a+ on my projet

Someone... on December 07, 2011:

Thank you soooooo much. This helped me on my France Christmas Project. Im probably gonna get an A+.

Thanks

Sally Striker on December 06, 2011:

Helped me on social studies project

Someone nice on December 02, 2011:

This totally worked for my writing class project on fresh chritsmas traditions

Kailtynn on November 30, 2011:

You see, i had a project for my language class, and it's on Christmas and stuff like that and this website helped me a bunch thank you

brittany on November 30, 2011:

this is so so so so pretty

Krystal on November 17, 2011:

this was so helpful

dannydg on November 13, 2011:

So glad I found this site, so much information that is useful. Am planning to spent part of my retirement in France and you've given me a better understanding of how to do it.Thanks for your valuable info.

naturalsolutions on September 22, 2011:

I have to check that celebration or festival if only I will have a time. I'm so inspired to this hub, I want France!lol

Melanie Shebel (author) from Midwest, USA on January 24, 2011:

I'm glad this hub was of help to you for your class.

renae :) on December 22, 2010:

i hav 2 look up dis french christmas junk 4 my french class so dis rlly helped me haha :) ...kinda :) MERRY CHRISTMAS

alaysha on December 14, 2010:

wow,i never had that!

cressinia on December 11, 2010:

Don't forget French Christmas Carols - one of my favorites is

Petit papa Noël

Quand tu descendras du ciel

Avec des jouets par milliers

N'oublie pas mon petit soulier.

Kids love it!

thank you on November 29, 2010:

thanks a bunch!

unknown on November 28, 2009:

awsome information