In France’s north-east, there are two main not-to-be-missed events in December: the Christmas market of Strasbourg and the Saint Nicolas celebrations in Nancy. The former capital of the Dukes of Lorraine hosts a major event in honour to Patron Saint of Lorraine. Saint-Nicolas expected on the 6th December to bring gifts and sweets to the children of Lorraine. In Nancy, the celebration includes a great parade, a show projected onto the façade of the City-Hall, a magical Christmas tree on Place Stanislas and a Ferris wheel on Place de la Carrière.
The feast of Saint Nicolas in Nancy: a local tradition
Saint Nicolas’ Day is mainly celebrated in north-eastern France, in the regions of Alsace and Lorraine. Other celebrating countries in Europe include Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria. Saint-Nicolas’ celebrations are usually on the 6th December, in commemoration of the Saint’s death.
In Nancy, Saint-Nicolas goes throughout the town visiting schools, so every child can receive sweets and lollies from him. The moment is often marked by a class photo and featured by the local newspapers. Nowadays, it is up to Lorraine parents to perpetuate the tradition in their home on the night of the 5th by inviting Saint Nicolas (which will usually be an adult member of the family disguised as the Patron of Lorraine). The ritual will always be the same: the Saint will ask children if they have behaved well he will then distribute treats and presents to the obedient ones… but fortunately for our naughty kids in Lorraine, no one will receive a spanking from the ‘Père Fouettard’ (this for a simple reason: for under French law, our dear Père Fouettard would spend the rest of his days in prison!).
Saint-Nicolas vs Père Noël
Long gone are the days when children used to leave a glass of eau de vie and a plate of carrots for the Saint and his donkey by the fireplace. The days when Saint Nicolas was the sole distributor of the presents are also fading! Today, his American descendant Santa Claus (Père Noël) has stolen this role from him. In most towns of North-East France, Saint-Nicolas has now retroceded into a giver of lollies and sweets on the 6th December with Santa Claus then giving presents the night before Christmas.
The Saint Nicolas celebrations in Nancy
Each year, between 150,000 to 200,000 people visit Nancy during the Saint Nicolas celebrations. The festivities are held on the first weekend of December (2&3 December in 2017). They focus on a particular theme which changes each year. In 2017 the Saint Nicolas celebrations are themed on “Le Grand Festin” (the great feast).
On that weekend, several artistic associations stroll along the streets of the town centre. Their role is to increase the expectation of Saint-Nicolas’ coming, in a festive and playful atmosphere. Some lucky people may encounter Saint Nicolas at the Christmas market.
The Saint-Nicolas parade in Nancy
At 6pm on Saturday, a great parade with floats criss-crosses the old town of Nancy from place Carnot to Place Stanislas. Some 34 floats follow a 1.7 kms itinerary, each of them designed according to the thematic of the year (the Great Feast in 2017).
Most of Nancy’s surrounding suburbs, cities and villages are invited to take part in the parade with a themed float. In past years:
- Essey-lès-Nancy with “Beauty and the Beast”,
- Jarville-la-Malgrange with “O Christmas Tree”,
- Laneuveville-devant-Nancy with “History of Lorraine”, or
- Saulxures-lès-Nancy with “The Three Little Pigs”.
Corporations, companies and associations are also represented, such as:
- the “Patrons Pâtissiers” with a themed-float based on “Snow White making cakes” or
- the Catholic Relief Services with “Robin Hood”.
The City of Nancy’s floats are the last to parade. The floats of:
- “The Evil butcher”,
- “Père Fouettard” (the faithful companion of the Saint, armed with his whip) and
- “Saint Nicolas” himself.
Saint Nicolas celebrations on place Stanislas
The Saint Nicolas celebrations are centred on place Stanislas. A magnificent fir tree from the Vosges Mountains stands near the statue of Duke Stanislas.
Every night a 8 minute long video “Le Rendez-Vous de Saint-Nicolas” is projected onto the façade of the city-hall. It tells the tales of Saint-Nicolas. Times for the displays:
- Sunday to Thursday: 6.15pm and 7.15pm
- Friday to Saturday + school holidays: 6.15pm, 7.15pm and 8.15pm
Things to know about the Saint Nicolas celebrations in Nancy
- The 2017 edition of the Saint Nicolas celebrations in Nancy takes place on Saturday 2 December (parade day) and Sunday 3 December.
- The Christmas market of Nancy (villages de Saint-Nicolas) is open from 24 November to 31 December 2017.
- The country guest of honour for 2017 is Belgium. A chalet in the Christmas market sells gourmet produce from Liège (waffles and more!)
- All museums in Nancy are free during the weekend of the Saint Nicolas celebrations.
- During the festive weekend (2&3 December 2017) a little train offers free rides between the Christmas markets (Place Charles III to Place des Bourgets and Place de la Carrière). It will also run on the 9&10 and 16&17 December 2017)
- We’ve published another article about visiting Nancy in December.
- You can download the programme of the festivities [in French] here.
Memories of Saint Nicolas’ Day
Two people born in Nancy tell about their memories of celebrating Saint-Nicolas in their youths (1960s and 1980s).
Marie-Christine remembers Saint Nicolas Day in Nancy…
When I was a child in Nancy in the early 1960s, I don’t recall that Saint-Nicolas actually came into our school. Maybe this happened in villages around Nancy, but as for me and my friends, I encountered him every December at the big party organised by my father’s company. Every child was given the gift he/she had previously chosen, along with an enormous bag full of sweets and lollies.
Saint Nicolas was there wearing ornate clothes and was crowned with an immense mitre. His hand was holding the distinctive golden bishop’s crosier. When he passed by the crowd of children, I remember how much we eagerly followed him with our eyes, in the expectation to receive from him the long awaited present. Saint Nicolas was a tall man who was feared and respected.
Beware the Père Fouettard!
Unfortunately, he was accompanied by the terrible “Père Fouettard”, all dressed in black. His clothes were not the only black thing, as his face and hands were also blackened with charcoal. He was holding a whip, which we were told he used on naughty children.
To my relief, I never personally saw the Père Fouettard in action but I can tell you that all of us were well behaved in front of him! We tried not to pay too much attention to his sniggering, in order to limit our fear! But Saint Nicolas was there and saw to it that every child received his/her present and bag of sweets.
Pierre remembers Saint Nicolas Day in Nancy
I only spent one year in a school in Nancy, and that was in pre-school in the early 1980s. On the 6th December, Saint-Nicolas visited the school and entered our classroom where we were told to behave.
As a child, the character of Saint Nicolas was indeed very impressive: a tall thin man, all dressed up in yellow and red silk, which would make the Pope jealous! His crosier and bishop’s mitre always fascinated me. Surely, he was the same guy as the one pictured on my favourite “pains d’épices” (gingerbread), those which are only found at the grocer’s in December.
Of course, le Père Fouettard was there too, but for some reason, my attention was much more focused on the Saint… or maybe the actor impersonating the evil companion of Nicolas was acting very poorly on that day and did not convince me!
Everyone’s dressed up!
Other officials were there too: the director of the school, local politicians, and the press, all dressed up in suit and tie. Needless to say that Saint Nicolas’ outfit was really odd amongst all of the adults! In the 1980s, Saint Nicolas had long got rid of the heavy task of giving presents away to the Père Noël. But I remember being so happy to receive my bag of sweets, lollies… and clementines. I would first eat the citrus fruit to leave the yummiest for the last!
The parade of Saint Nicolas in the streets of Nancy was also magical for me. I remember the fireworks on Place Stanislas. It was the first time I ever saw fireworks and I was terrified by the sound of the colourful explosions. I remember screaming and screaming, so much so that my frustrated parents had to leave the celebrations with me crying in despair. I always remember this scene and smile when I watch the fantastic fireworks in Sydney at New Year.
How to get to Nancy
- By car: Nancy is easily reached from Paris, Lyon, Belgium and Germany through the network of reliable motorways crossing Lorraine from West to East and North to South. From Paris, take the N4 which is mostly a dual-carriage-way. Belgium and Germany are not far away either thanks to the A31 and the A4. If you are travelling to Nancy by car for the St Nicolas celebrations, it is recommended to leave your vehicle in the park and ride spaces which are linked to the town centre by free bus shuttles.
- By air: Take a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Luxembourg or Strasbourg airports and rent a car from there! The closest international airport is Luxembourg, some 100 km away from Nancy by motorway.
- By train: The TGV from Paris-Gare de l’Est takes only 1.30 hours.
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