The French consider Christmas as one of their most important holidays, alongside Bastille Day! How many of us have cherished memories of the most wonderful time of the year? Indeed this is a time when families and friends get together to share customs and traditions which have been followed for centuries. In this article I’ve listed some of the favourite French Christmas traditions, with some historical background and lots of anecdotes.
What are the French Christmas Traditions?
This little guide will cover a number of the top French Christmas Traditions, including:
- Why Alsace is considered the birthplace of the Christmas tree
- Why Saint-Nicolas is an ancestor of Santa Claus
- How the French Revolution led to the widespread of Nativity scenes in the French homes
- Where is the oldest French Christmas market held
- What French Christmas song dates back to the 16th century
- What do the French eat on Christmas Eve
- Why do we offer presents at Christmas
- How do we say Merry Christmas in French
- And many more traditions of Christmas in France explained!
The French Christmas Traditions start with Advent
Advent calendars – les calendriers de l’Avent
Like in many European countries, Advent Calendars herald the coming of the French Christmas season.
They provide a great way of teaching children patience as they anticipate Christmas.
The original versions of Advent calendars had pious images. Today, children will uncover toys and/or chocolates.
In addition, during that time of the year, the local postman or fire fighter happen to knock on every door, selling calendars for the coming New Year. The French have a name for them: “Almanach du facteur”.
Moreover, the calendar comes with an other Advent tradition: the decorated wreath with its four distinctive candles.
Advent wreaths – les couronnes de l’Avent
The Advent wreath consists of fir and pine tree branches. It is traditionally knotted with beautiful red bows and decorated with pine or fir cones. Four candles ornate the top the Advent wreath. They symbolise the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. People then lit a candle on each Sunday preceding Christmas.
A giant Advent wreath decorate the nave of the cathedral of Strasbourg. It is one of the largest Advent wreath displayed in France.
► Read more about these French Christmas traditions: Advent in France.
The Christmas tree – le Sapin de Noël
Legend has it that the Christmas tree tradition was born in 1521 in France… actually, to be more correct, in the town of Sélestat, then part of the Holy Roman Empire (medieval Germany).
The French call it “sapin de noël” or “arbre de noël”. The tree, covered in red apples and lights, traditionally symbolises the venue of Christ: ‘The light that illuminates the world’.
French people decorate the Christmas tree using a wide choice of:
- glistening tinsel,
- blinking fairy light, and, of course,
- a star or a cimier at the top.
It has become an iconic figure of Christmas since its origins in the 16th century.
► In this article I’m telling you when and where the tradition started and how it became a major part of the holiday festivities.
Why a fir tree?
A fir tree is the best choice because they do not lose their leaves during winter.
This is a double symbol of hope and eternal life.
It appears as a more secular tradition than that of the Nativity. Unsurprisingly the Protestant countries (such as northern Germany and Scandinavia) quickly adopted the Christmas tree as a Christmas tradition).
► Read more about the French traditions of Christmas tree and Christmas decoration.
Saint Nicolas vs. Père Noël
Santa Claus in France is “le Père Noël” (Father Christmas). The French Santa has a similar silhouette as its American counterpart. Indeed, le Père Noël wears:
- a red suit and hat,
- with white fur trimming, and
- a broad black belt around his waist.
- tall and large,
- has ruddy cheeks and nose,
- with bushy eyebrows,
- and a white beard and moustache.
His big brown sack is packed full of toys. He will be deliver them to every household at midnight, using his sleigh pulled by reindeers.
Saint Nicolas and Père Fouettard
The character of Santa was largely inspired by that of Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas).
Saint Nicolas originally distributed presents to German and northeastern French children on 6 December. Le Père Fouettard (the Bogeyman) is the evil counterpart of Saint Nicolas. The French represent him covered in coal marks and dressed all in black.
He whips/spanks misbehaved children, just as Saint Nicolas rewards the good ones.
With the mutation of Saint Nicolas into our modern-day Santa, Père Fouettard has somewhat disappeared altogether. In fact, other characters replaced him, such as elves and reindeer.
Many regions in Europe celebrate Saint Nicolas: in the Flanders, Lorraine and Alsace, as well as in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
When the Dutch migrated to the United States in the 19th century, they kept with them the traditions of Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas). Consequently, the character gradually evolved into Santa Claus.
The fireplace of Père Noël
On Christmas Eve, French children used to fill their shoes with carrots and treats for Père Noël’s donkey and leave them by the fireplace.
However only a small proportion of French homes has fireplaces. This partly explains why the Christmas tree took a preponderant place at Christmas time.
Legend has it that on Christmas night, Père Noël travels the world. He would stop at each and every house. And climb down through the chimney to leave presents for every child who has behaved themselves through the past year.
More and more, Père Noël’s donkey gives way to seven magical reindeer who pull his sleigh, – an American tradition.
On Christmas morning, children run to the Christmas tree to see what Santa has left under it for them. In some families, children open their presents on the evening of 24 December, after the Christmas Réveillon dinner or after the midnight mass.
► Read more about Santa Claus.
Christmas’ presents – les cadeaux de Noël
According to tradition, the gift of presents to each other at Christmas time represents Saint Nicolas’s caring attitude for children. They also refer to the gifts the three wise men offered to Jesus on Epiphany (6th January), the day they arrived at the stable.
Until the 1960’s, children in France received an orange and a small gift for Christmas that their parents placed in a stocking. Colourful wrapping paper and the tradition of buying more expensive gifts developed in line with an increase in American influence in the aftermath of World War Two.
The Nativity scene – la Crèche de Noël
The Gospel of Luke recounts the story of the birth of Christ in a stable. His mother Mary wrapped him in cloths and laid him to sleep in the stable’s manger.
The reproduction of the birth of Christ in real or miniature size with live actors or figurines was created around the 3rd century. This tradition started spreading amongst Christians, particularly in the Middle-Ages. It was common to display Nativity plays (with life-size statues of the characters) in public places.
The birth of Jesus
In the 4th century, the birth of Jesus was set on the 25th December.
Every year since then, on Christmas morning, the church placed a figurine representing Jesus in the nativity. (some nativities already featured it, though positioned upside down until Christmas Day).
The first nativity known to man dates back to the 6th century. Writings of that period mention the Christmas celebrations as being centred around the nativity: “ad praesepe”, in the church of St. Mary in Rome.
The first Nativity scenes
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity with people from his church in Greccio. Villagers played the characters. The role play even included live animals!
To represent the baby Christ, St. Francis put a consecrated host in the nativity, although it was later replaced by a live infant. Little by little, the custom spread throughout Europe.
Apart from Provençal Nativities and live ones, a wide array of Nativities co-exist: Baroque, Neapolitan, Comtoise (from Franche-Comté) as well as theatre Nativity scenes (which were presented in the town hall square of Paris for 17 years).
A variety of Nativity scenes in France
During the banning of street nativities throughout the period of the French revolutions (closing of churches and suppression of the midnight mass), French households started reproducing the scene in their own house in miniature versions with clay figurines.
This is when the Provençal Nativity started developing. It has now become a very important tradition in the region. Contrary to the traditional Nativity, the Provençal one mingles:
- biblical characters (Mary, Joseph, the donkey and the ox, the three wise men)
- with typical Provençal villagers (the town crier, the poacher, the old man and woman: Grasset and Grasseto, the washerwoman, etc…).
Christmas Eve in France – le Réveillon de Noël
The Réveillon is the big dinner French people share with their family on the 24th December.
In France, the 24th December is a regular workday. However, it common that businesses close earlier that usual in preparation for the Réveillon.
The menu varies according to the region. But it is always an occasion for the family to sit down together and enjoy a variety of the most delicious dishes.
Christmas in France is a time for celebration and thus the French indulge in luxury food and delicatessen.
The Réveillon dinner can continue for up to six hours in some families and it is a very sacred tradition to the French. Eating at the table for a long time is also a social custom in France. It is intended to be a magical and unforgettable moment for children too.
This is the perfect occasion for everyone to “blow out” one’s food budget and savour snails, frog’s legs, scallops (Coquilles Saint Jacques) and truffles.
Parisians usually enjoy a great range of delicious food:
- seafood and oysters with bran bread and butter,
- foie gras (goose liver pate) with currant jam
- and the famous Christmas Yule log (a chocolate cake in the shape of a log, decorated with plastic or sugared Christmas objects).
Christmas Eve in Provincial France
In Alsace and Burgundy, a roasted stuffed turkey/capon with potatoes is more common.
In Provence, turkey is also found on the table during the Réveillon. Although some more religious families would argue that meagre meats, such as fish, should be eaten instead. Foie gras is also consumed in Provence, as is the dessert Yule log. However, it is tradition to eat 13 desserts in Provence. Thirteen is a number that refers to Jesus and his 12 apostles (orange, pear, apples, prunes, melon, white nougat, black nougat, pompe à l’huile [a flat cake filled with olive oil], sorb, dates, dry figs, almonds, nuts or hazel nuts, black raisins).
French people take a great deal of care when creating decorations for the Christmas Eve dinner. This is particularly true for placing ornaments for the dining table, which must look elegant and inviting.
On Christmas Day, food is still a very important part of the day, particularly at lunch time when it is common to eat a particularly special dish, such as rabbit, coq au vin, vol-au-vent (bouchées à la reine), etc.
The Midnight Mass – la messe de Noël
The midnight mass is part of the French Christmas traditions and takes place on Christmas Eve. However attendance has fallen dramatically for the past 60 years.
The religious service usually starts either at the stroke of midnight or a few hours before in all the cathedrals and parish churches all over France. Families get together in prayer and carol singing in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
For the occasion, people decorate their churches with Christmas candles, Christmas trees and a Nativity scene.
Some families come back home after the Mass to enjoy a delicious bûche de Noël and occasionally to open their Christmas presents.
French Carols – les chants de Noël
In the past, each region of France had its own Christmas songs. This was (and remains) particularly true in Provence. The oldest of French carols still sung today is “Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris”. It was written in the early 16th century.
The French uses two names to mention Carols. They are either “des chants de Noël” or simply “des noëls” (masculine, without the capital N).
Christmas carols in France are of two types:
- the “cantiques” (sung in churches), and
- the “chants profanes” (with a distant or no reference to the Nativity).
Some of the most popular French carols heard in English-speaking countries is “Petit Papa Noël” and “Il est né le divin Enfant”.
English and German carols have sometimes been adapted into French. A few examples :
- “Douce nuit” (Silent night),
- “Vive le vent” (Jingle bells),
- “Mon beau sapin” (Oh Tannenbaum / O Christmas Tree), or
- “L’enfant au tambour” (Little Drummer Boy)
The French Christmas markets – les marchés de Noël
The traditions of Christmas in France include the Christmas markets.
Indeed the proximity of the region to Germany gives the Alsatian-style Christmas markets in France a distinctly Germanic touch. This is apparent in the structure of the market stalls. These are little wooden houses similar to mountain chalets, sometimes covered in lights and decorations.
Strasbourg hosts the oldest Christmas market in France and one of the oldest in Europe. It dates back to 1570.
Christmas markets mainly sell Christmas products and Christmas gifts. However, more recently, voices called for more authenticity as many French Christmas markets sell items that are not directly related to Christmas (including too many products made in China).
Christmas markets spread in every corners of France, with their distinctive wooden chalets. For example in Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Orléans, Besançon, Rouen, Dijon, Reims, Annecy, Grenoble, Lille, Arras, Béthune, Lyon, Nice, Monaco, etc.
My favourite French Christmas markets
What I like the most in a French Christmas market is experiencing the festive atmosphere. This is not just for getting ideas of presents. I like the decoration and organisation that people put into it. In fact they are Christmas markets that I particularly like for their authenticity. Or for the careful attention to the chalets and product display. You’ll find most of them in Alsace and Lorraine. A few example:
Obviously the largest of all Christmas markets in France. As we said, one of the oldest in Europe. I love strolling from Place Broglie to the Petite France district via the Cathedral square and Place Kleber where a giant Christmas tree stands. I choose not to come on weekend days (to avoid the crowds of tourists!). ► Read more
The rich heritage of the town of Colmar is brilliantly enhanced with a festive (and vintage) Christmas light display. The historic town includes 5 Christmas markets. ► Read more
The Place de la Réunion hosts an enchanting Christmas market and a ferris wheel. Take a ride on it and admire the fine stained-glass windows of the St. Etienne church. ► Read more
One of the most authentic Christmas markets in France! Kaysersberg is also one of our favourite spots in Alsace. The market only takes place during the weekends of Advent. ► Read more
The wine-growing village has a very small yet charming Christmas market. ► Read more
The town of Sélestat in central Alsace, between Strasbourg and Colmar is the “birthplace of the Christmas tree”. It boasts a rich architectural heritage. ► Read more
The picturesque old town of Obernai specialises in a gastronomic Christmas market. The fine half-timbered houses that border the place du Marché provide an enchanting scene for this festive event. ► Read more
In northern Alsace, Haguenau hosts a beautiful Christmas market during the whole festive period.
Each year, the little town at the tip of Alsace chooses to respect the local traditions. Beware of the terrifying Hans Trapp… fortunately you’ll see the kind Christkindle not far away…
The historic town in Lorraine hosts one of France’s largest Christmas markets after Strasbourg and Paris. From the cathedral square (place d’Armes) to place Saint-Louis, they are five different markets. ► Read more
The festive market puts the emphasis on the character of Saint-Nicolas. The Unesco-listed Place Stanislas welcomes a superb Christmas tree while the Ferries wheel of Place de la Carrière offers a breathtaking view of the town. ► Read more
With its rich display of Christmas lights, the is certainly one of the most beautiful Christmas markets I’ve ever visited! ► Read more
You’ve probably heard about Annecy and its lake with turquoise water at the foot of snow-capped mountains. During the Christmas Holidays, the historic town hosts a little Christmas market by the enchanting canals of the Little Venice district. Simply amazing! ► Read more
The French Christmas Traditions in Paris
Ok, I admit it: Paris is not my favourite place to be for its Christmas markets. I find them not as authentic as in Alsace. And particularly too commercial-oriented if I may say so!
However there are a number of places I really enjoyed visiting when I’m in the French capital in December.
The Eiffel Tower sparkling at night
There are many beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower. The classic vistas are at the Trocadéro or the Champ de Mars. I’ve found another beautiful spot by the Debilly footbridge.
The Christmas lights at the Champs-Elysées
From the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe, hundreds of thousands LEDs illuminate the prestigious avenue. Many consider the event as the first observance of the French Traditions of Christmas.
The Nativity Scenes inside the churches of Paris
When I was living in Paris, I tried to enter as many churches I could to admire their Nativity Scenes. Some of them have quite simple settings, others are monumental. My favourite crib was that of Notre-Dame… alas we’ll have to wait at least a decade before the end of the restoration work.
Montmartre by night
I enjoy Montmartre by night when the streets are deserted. Past 6 or 7pm on a weekday in December, the charming square of Place du Tertre is rather empty and offers a beautiful sight of Sacré-Cœur all lit up.
The Banks of the River Seine
Paris may look grim on a grey Winter day. But wait for the night to fall and the magic begins! I love strolling by the banks of the River Seine at night time for all the lights and monuments to see. My favourite itinerary starts from Pont de Sully and ends at the Place de la Concorde.
► Read more about the French traditions of Christmas in Paris.
The French Christmas Traditions in Alsace-Lorraine
The City of Lights put aside, the North-East of France is the place to be to discover the lights of Christmas, The “lumières de Noël“.
The lights are inextricably related to the Christmas markets of Alsace and Lorraine. However many villages that do not host a Christmas market would have strings of light decorating the streets. And often a glittering Christmas tree standing on the main square.
Main cities of France would decorate their streets with repetitive and plain Christmas decorations. In Alsace, tradition has it that the Advent period is the moment to express one’s decorative skills.
They are numerous examples of places to see Christmas lights in Alsace and Lorraine.
Here’s some ideas of visit:
Nicknamed “Capital of Christmas”, Strasbourg is no stranger to an abundance of lights and decorations. Head to the narrow rue des Orfèvres and rue du Maroquin near the cathedral. The picturesque district of La Petite France is also a great place to visit.
► Find out more about Christmas in Strasbourg
One of my favourite places to be at Christmas time! The little town of Wissembourg, at the northern tip of Alsace, wants to show us what it means to celebrate Christmas according to the local traditions. What a beautiful atmosphere!
The Christmas market in Saverne is not particularly big. One of the reasons must be the proximity of Strasbourg. Therefore, each year Saverne hosts a Christmas event called “Féerie d’Hiver” (Winter Wonderland). It features a great light display onto the façades of the entire main street.
Between Strasbourg and Colmar, Sélestat takes pride in being the first place where a decorated Christmas tree was mentioned. Therefore the little town is playing the Christmas tree card very well with an abundance of lights.
► Find out more about Christmas in Sélestat
Europe’s largest open-air museum reopens during the Advent period for the joy of young and old! The reconstituted Alsatian village with its half-timbered houses is beautifully decorated with Christmas trees everywhere!
► Find out more about the Ecomusée d’Alsace
I think Nancy would have to be the most elegant place in the north-east of France to spend Christmas. The royal square of Place Stanislas is adorned with a giant Christmas tree. The main street of the old town is also a must-see.
► Find out more about Christmas in Nancy
North of Nancy, the Lorraine city of Metz has become a Christmas hotspot thanks to its brilliant Christmas market. But there are other Christmas lights to discover, such as the Trail of Lanterns.
► Find out more about Christmas in Metz
The town of Montbéliard lies in the Franche-Comté region but is very close to Alsace. Its Holiday time is locally known as “Lumières de Noël” (Christmas lights).
► Find out more about Christmas in Montbéliard
The colours of Christmas – les couleurs de Noël
The traditional colours of Christmas are red, gold and green:
- The flamboyant colour red evokes light and warmth (as well as Santa’s outfit).
- Gold makes reference to the sun, which is not often visible in Northern France in December.
- Green is a reminder of the evergreen trees, such as figs and holly which are … always green. This regardless of the season or time of year. It is the colour of hope, as it is paired with the knowledge that spring will eventually return!
The Poinsettia flower: the Étoile de Noël
As in Northern America and in England, the poinsettia flower (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is widely used in Christmas floral displays, especially in Alsace.
The Central America indigenous plant is appreciated for its red and green foliage that recalls the traditional colours of Christmas. The poinsettia originally grew in Mexico where it was known as the “Flower of the Holy Night“. Joel Poinsett first brought it to America in 1829. Unsurprisingly he gave his name to the flower!
The flower is also known in French as “étoile de Noël” for its star-shaped leaf pattern. The flower symbolises the Star of Bethlehem while the red colour represents the blood sacrifice of Jesus at the crucifixion.
Mistletoe and holly – le gui et le houx de Noël
In France, mistletoe (le gui) is not only used for New Year’s Eve. It is also hung above the door, on beams and luminaries during the Christmas period. It was to bring good fortune throughout the coming year.
Pine cones (painted gold), walnuts and holly are also widely accepted symbols of Christmas.
The legend goes that when Jesus and his family fled Egypt, the soldiers of Herod where about to catch them. The holly (le houx) extended its branches to hide Jesus and his parents. Marie thus blessed the holly. In doing so she announced that it would remain eternally green, a symbol of hope and immortality.
Exchanging vows – les vœux de Noël et du Nouvel An
Exchanging vows for Christmas and the New Year has been practiced between neighbours for centuries in France. But with the invention of postal mail, the practice became more widespread. Nevertheless, it is still not a tradition as important as it is in other countries such as England.
Merry Christmas in French
How do the French wish “Merry Christmas” in French?
Joyeux Noël !
How do the French wish “Happy New Year” in French?
Bonne Année !
Bonne et heureuse année !
Les vœux présidentiels
In addition, it is tradition that the President of the French Republic addresses the country on television at 8pm on New Year’s Eve.
► Read more about New Year’s Eve in France.
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Want to read about the French Christmas Traditions in French? Check out our article on our French blog!