France established close relations with the Catholic Church in 800 AD. Since then, Catholic festivals and celebrations have become common throughout France.
Although Christmas has largely become a secular holiday in modern French society, it is still a very important and highly anticipated holiday.
During the Christmas season, celebrations and markets are held in towns and cities across the country, and families also host parties and family celebrations. This article will tell you a little about Christmas in France, and maybe you can incorporate some French food and celebration into your holiday plans.
How do you say “Merry Christmas” in French?
Christmas in French is “Noël”. Merry Christmas is “joyeux noël”, pronounced “jwa-YOU No-ELL”.
Other greetings for the season include:
- Joyeuses fêtes (jwa-YOU fet): meaning “happy holidays”
- Bonnes fêtes (bone fet): literally means “happy holidays”, but means “happy holidays”
- Meilleurs voeux (MAY-ur voo): means “greeting of the seasons”
While there are formal and informal ways to speak French, any of the above phrases can be used by acquaintances or people who have just met.
How does Christmas be celebrated in France?
For the French, Christmas is a season to reunite with their families. Even non-religious people usually celebrate the holiday.
Christmas is a public holiday in France. Christmas Day, December 25, is one of the holidays when most French schools, government buildings, shops, restaurants and offices are closed, reuniting employees with their families.
Many communities hold celebrations and special events in the days leading up to Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
A common Christmas tradition in France
Christmas traditions in France have common customs similar to those in Europe and North America, as well as many unique Christmas traditions, including:
- Advent calendars: French families usually buy these calendars to count down Christmas, and some put chocolate in each calendar. The store starts selling this calendar around the end of November.
- Les crèches: Families who celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday usually have elaborate nativity scenes, or “les crèches”, in their homes. These scenes often include figurines in addition to the characters of the traditional nativity story.
- Lighting and decoration: Decorating the windows and doors of homes and shops with light is a common arrangement in France. Most town lampposts are also decorated with lights or evergreen garlands. Christmas decorations do not follow any fixed color scheme, and colorful Christmas charms, lights, and other decorations are everywhere.
- Gift-giving: Giving gifts to loved ones is a tradition during the French Christmas season. Statista’s research points out that buying Christmas gifts is the biggest expense of the French during the Christmas season, with an average expenditure of 372 euros per consumer. Adults usually exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.
- Midnight Mass: Although many do not attend the Christmas services in church, the favorite part of those who do is the Catholic midnight mass.
Christmas for children in France
During the Christmas season, children in France are most looking forward to the arrival of the French version of Santa Claus Le Père Noël. In some parts of France, Santa Claus visits for the first time on the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. He wears a brown frayed cloak and gives out sweets and small gifts to the children.
Throughout France, Santa Claus also visits again on Christmas Eve to leave toys and other gifts for children.
This time, the beloved figure will change into a red holy robe and wear a matching bishop’s hat. Children will leave their shoes by the fireplace and let Santa fill them with presents.
Children usually write to Santa to ask questions and provide a wish list. France passed a law in 1962 that stipulates that any letter addressed to Santa Claus must be returned to the children in the form of a postcard by the country’s postal service.
Traditionally, Santa Claus has a mean henchman named Père Fouettard. His job was to leave onions and coal for bad boys, or threaten them with a whip. The darker side of this Christmas tradition is no longer common in France. However, it is still possible to see his appearance when reading the history of Christmas in France.
During the festival, French television broadcasts animated shows and movies for the whole family to enjoy. The most popular Christmas specials and movies in France include:
- “L’agenda du Père Noël” (Santa’s address book)
- “L’apprenti Père Nöel” (Santa’s apprentice)
- “Le Cristal Magique du Père Noël” (Santa’s magic crystal)
- “L’Enfant au grelot” (Charlie’s Christmas)
- “Les Contes de Nöel” (Christmas Story)
Traditional Christmas food in France
It is common for families to gather for a traditional Christmas feast, and the French enjoy a variety of desserts during the Christmas season.
Christmas dinner in France
Although each family has different habits, Christmas dinner usually begins at midnight on Christmas or before or after the family goes to church for mass.
Some typical foods on the Christmas table in France include:
- Foie gras: A duck liver or foie gras sauce that is usually served with bread or biscuits
- Roast turkey or goose with chestnuts
- Oysters or lobsters
Other Christmas delicacies in France
In France, there are foods that are only consumed during festivals, such as:
- Bûche de Noël: This classic round wood-shaped cream sponge cake is decorated with chocolate frosting, marzipan mushrooms and leaves to resemble the trunk of a Christmas tree. This cake is often used as a dessert for Christmas dinners.
- Galette des Rois: The French celebrate “La Fêtes des Rois” on January 6. Galette des Rois is a traditional part of the festivities. Inside this tart pie is a small porcelain statue called “fève”. Those who eat this small porcelain statue become the queen or king of the day and wear a crown to show their status.
The best place in France for Christmas
While Christmas is celebrated everywhere in France, some cities are particularly famous for their festivals.
Home to several Michelin-starred restaurants, Dijon is a famous gastronomic paradise. Many restaurants offer special meals during the Christmas season, and the whole city is decorated with Christmas lights.
A public ice rink is set up in Place de la Liberation, and train rides are available for children on Place Darcy.
In order to incorporate the festive spirit, Lyon hosts the “Fête des Lumières” (Festival of Lights). In 2022, the event will take place from December 8 to December 11.
The festival includes a dazzling illumination and many galleries open their doors to showcase special works. Residents of Lyon also decorate their windows to celebrate the event.
Paris is known as the “City of Light” throughout the year, but the name becomes more apt at Christmas. The shops are specially set up for Christmas, and there are public Christmas markets in many places.
The market held in the Tuileries Garden is one of the most famous, with rides and musical performances.
Known for its well-preserved medieval architecture, Sara is known as “the most beautiful town in France”, and visitors feel like they have traveled back in time in time.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, this small town in Dordogne sets up an ice rink and cabins for warmth. After your ice skate, visit a traditional Christmas market and drink mulled wine or Christmas beer with spices. Typical delicacies include truffles, roasted walnuts and foie gras.
The Christmas market in Strasbourg, France is the most famous Christmas market in France.
Formerly part of Germany, the city has a long history of hosting large markets. The event attracts artisans and craftsmen from across the region, as well as visitors from all over the world. In 2022, the event will take place from November 25 to December 23.