Christmas traditions in France – all you need to know to enjoy a French style Noel.
Christmas in France is not really very commercial and the hype doesn’t start months before the day – unless you’re in Paris where the Christmas lights are switched on towards the end of November.
French traditions at Christmas
Traditionally French children place their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Father Christmas or as he is called in France – Père Noël (or sometimes called Papa Noël) will fill them with gifts.
Sweets, fruit, nuts and small toys are hung on the tree overnight. In some regions, there can be a visit from Père Fouettard who is Father Christmas’ companion. Père Fouettard (which translates as The Whipping Father) dispenses lumps of coal and has a stick to give spankings to the naughty children!
Christmas for children is taken seriously here reflected by the fact that in 1962, a law was passed ensuring that every child who writes a letter to Father Christmas gets a response – if a whole school class writes to Pere Noël – every child gets an individual reply!
The sapin de Noël (Christmas tree) is the main decoration in homes, streets, shops, offices, and factories.
This custom first appeared in Alsace in the 14th century and traditional decorations included apples, paper flowers, and ribbons, and was introduced in France in 1837.
Another important aspect of French Christmas tradition is the crèche filled with santons (little Saints), these are displayed in churches and many homes – driving round France at Christmas time one can see many of these scenes in front gardens – some good some not so much!
Living crèches in the form of plays and puppet shows based on the Nativity are commonly performed to teach the important ideas of Christianity and the Christmas celebration.
We also see a huge amount of plastic Santas hung out of windows, from roofs and gutters – pretty much anywhere you can hang a rather horrible plastic Santa really – they are not everyone’s cup of tea but they are very popular and the kids certainly seem to find it fun.
Mistletoe is hung above the door during the Christmas season to bring good fortune throughout the year.
Another French Christmas tradition is held on the evenings preceding Christmas Day and New Year’s Day to have a réveillon. This is a long dinner, sometimes a party, and the name comes from the literal meaning of the word réveil (meaning “waking”), because attending a réveillon involves staying awake until midnight or later! French hosts push the boat out on this occasion and often the food is luxurious with plenty of wine and champagne. After Réveillon, it’s customary to leave a candle burning in case the Virgin Mary passes by.
We’ve put together a few words to help you make the most of Christmas in the French language, whether it’s to help if you are asked to a réveillon, to wish your friends and neighbours a happy holiday or to attend a church service or a party or drinks, we hope you find it useful –click here to go to our helpful French language guide to Christmas.
You’ll find that most villages where a street market is held, even the smallest ones, will hold a Christmas market. Traditionally decorated festive market stalls loaded with seasonal gifts and handmade crafts tempt you in the nicest possible way. There are often brilliantly coloured wooden cabins decorated with fairy lights and the scents of traditional French gastronomic delights and mulled wine fill the air. You’ll usually find regional delicacies such as cheese, jams, foie gras and escargot, beautifully plaited smoked garlic, handmade gifts including Christmas decorations, children’s toys and unusual ornaments.
A word of warning though – it can be very cold at Christmas time sometimes falling below zero so wrap up warm – a glass of mulled wine helps too – and enjoy it.