How do the French celebrate Christmas? I’m glad you ask it… for there is much to say about one of my favourite topics! Did you know that the French traditions of Christmas play an integral part of celebrating the birth of Jesus in France? Well, the festive season consists of many favourite customs such as the Christmas tree, the chocolate bûche, the Père Noël and the great Christmas Eve dinner. Follow me on this cultural journey and find out more about the Holiday season in France!
The French traditions of Christmas start with Advent
Advent calendars – les calendriers de l’Avent
Advent Calendars are of course given to eager French children in anticipation of Christmas. Although the original versions contained pious images, the modern-day ones are filled with toys and chocolates. At Christmas time, the local postman or fire fighter will knock on every door, selling calendars for the coming New Year. The French call these post office calendars “Almanach du facteur”.
Alongside the calendar is the decorated wreath. With its four candles, this is another French traditions of Christmas followed in the period of Advent.
Advent wreaths – 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 top the Advent wreath. They symbolise the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. People then lit a candle on each Sunday preceding Christmas.
👉 Read more about these French traditions of Christmas: Advent in France.
Christmas tree – le Sapin de Noël
For decorating the Christmas tree, French people have a wide choice of:
- glistening tinsel,
- blinking fairy light,
- without forgetting a star at the top.
It has become an iconic figure of Christmas since its origins in the 16th century.
👉 This article will tell you when and where the tradition started and how it became a major part of the holiday festivities.
In France, the Christmas tree first appeared in Alsace in 1521. The French called it “sapin de noël” or “arbre de noël”. The tree, covered in red apples and lights, symbolised the venue of Christ. ‘The light that illuminates the world’.
A fir tree is the best choice because they do not lose their leaves during winter, which doubles as a symbol of hope and eternal life. It is a more secular tradition than that of the nativity. And thus more appreciated by protestant countries such as northern Germany and Scandinavia.
👉 Read more about the French traditions of Christmas tree and Christmas decoration.
From Saint Nicolas to le Père Noël
“Père Noël” (Father Christmas) is Santa Claus in France. Like in any places celebrating Christmas, the French Père Noël wears:
- a red suit and hat
- with white fur trimming
- with a broad black belt around his waist.
- tall and large,
- with ruddy cheeks and nose,
- bushy eyebrows,
- a white beard and moustache.
His big brown sack is packed full of toys. They will be delivered to every household at midnight, using his sleigh pulled by reindeers.
Saint Nicolas and Père Fouettard
The character of Santa was inspired by Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas). He was originally the person distributing presents to German and French children on 6 December. Le Père Fouettard (the Bogeyman) is the 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 transformation of Saint Nicolas into our modern-day Santa, Père Fouettard has somewhat disappeared altogether. In fact, he has given way to other characters, such as elves and reindeer.
Saint Nicolas is celebrated in the Flanders, Lorraine and Alsace, as well as in Austria, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. When the Dutch migrated to the United States in the 19th century, they took with them the traditions of Saint Nicolas (Sinterklaas). 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.
More recently, the fireplace has been replaced by the Christmas tree. On Christmas night, Père Noël is said to travel 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. Sometimes, Père Noël’s donkey is substituted by seven magical reindeer who pull his sleigh, which is in fact an American tradition. On Christmas morning, children run to the Christmas tree to see what Santa has left under it for them. Often presents are opened 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
The presents offered to each other at Christmastime represent Saint Nicolas’s caring attitude for children. They are also symbolic of the gifts offered by the three wise men to Jesus on 6 January (at Epiphany), when they arrived at the stable.
Until the 1960’s, children in France received an orange and a small gift for Christmas. They were placed in a stocking. Colourful wrapping paper and the tradition of buying more expensive gifts developed in line with an increase in American influence at the conclusion of the Second World War.
The Nativity scene – la Crèche de Noël
The Gospel of Luke recounts the story of the Christ’s birth in a stable. His mother Mary wrapped him in cloths and laid him to sleep in the stable’s manger. The manger also features in the nativity. (the reproduction of the birth of Christ in real or miniature size with live actors or figurines). Created around the 3rd century, this tradition started spreading amongst Christians. Nativities (with life-size statues of the characters) and plays have been displayed in public places for centuries.
The birth of Jesus
In the 4th century, the date of 25 December was decided upon as the birth date of Jesus. Every year since then on 25 December, a figurine representing Jesus has been placed in the nativity. (some nativities have it already present, though it is positioned upside down until Christmas Day). The first nativity known to man dates back to the 6th century. Writings of that period describe 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. Apart from Provençal nativities and live ones, there are also Baroque, Neapolitan, Comtoise nativities (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 nativity 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 24 December.
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 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 have seafood and oysters with bran bread and butter, caviar, 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. They are used to symbolise 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 French traditions of Christmas: the Midnight Mass
On Christmas’ Eve, the midnight mass is part of the French traditions of Christmas. However not everyone will be joining the church on that night. 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 which tradition believed to have occurred at night.
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 savour the French Christmas log and occasionally to open their Christmas presents.
Christmas markets – les marchés de Noël
Indeed the proximity of the region to Germany gives Alsatian and French Christmas markets a distinctly Germanic touch. This is apparent in the structure of the market stalls. These are little wooden houses resembling mountain chalets, covered in lights and decorations.
The oldest Christmas market in Europe is that of Strasbourg, which dates back to 1570.
Christmas markets mainly sell Christmas products or sometimes Christmas gifts. But more recently some would say there has unfortunately been a large amount of commercialisation of the idea of Christmas markets.
They can now be found all over 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, etc.
My favourite Christmas markets in France
What I like the most in a Christmas market is to experience the festive atmosphere. This is not just for getting ideas of presents. It is for the decoration and organisation that people put into it. Therefore I have my favourites! 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 Broglié to the Petite France district via the Cathedral square. 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. 👉 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. 👉 Read more
The wine-growing village may host a very small Christmas market but it has a lot of charm. 👉 Read more
The town of Sélestat is located in central Alsace, between Strasbourg and Colmar. The “cradle of the Christmas tree” 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
Situated in northern Alsace, Haguenau organises 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 Hans Trapp… fortunately you’ll see the kind Christkindle not far away…
The historic town hosts one of France’s largest Christmas markets after Strasbourg and Paris. Five different venues made up the Christmas market. My two favourites are the Place d’Armes (and its ferries wheel) and the medieval Place Saint-Louis. 👉 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. Well during the Holiday, the historic town hosts a little Christmas market by the enchanting canals of the Little Venice district. Simply amazing! 👉 Read more
What about Christmas in Paris?
Let’s put it that way: 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
Either viewed from the Trocadéro or the Champ de Mars. I’ve found another beautiful spot, by the Debilly footbridge.
The Christmas lights at the Champs-Elysées
What a beautiful sight! 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 made it a tradition to enter the many churches to admire their Nativity Scenes. Some of them are 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 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 la nouvelle année
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.
👉 Read more about New Year’s Eve in France.
Want to read this in French? Check out our article on the French traditions of Christmas on our French blog!
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