If you visit France around Christmas, you will know it’s Xmas time :-) Although the French don’t necessarily decorate the outside of their houses with des guirlandes éléctriques (string lights), French towns usually do, so Xmas is definitely in the air.
A little bit less than in the US though: stores don’t necessarily play Christmas songs, and wishing people Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) is only done the week of Christmas in France.
Many towns will also have un marché de Noël – A Xmas market: small wooden châlet like stands selling local arts and crafts, special Christmas food such as le pain d’épice (gingerbread), regional delicacies, handmade clothing, des décorations de Noël (ornaments)… Lots of things.
Even if they tend to be expensive, it’s really fun to roam the market and gaze at everything. You may even find a special gift or two.
And now, let me try to guess all the questions you may have about Christmas in France. Should you have more, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comment section below.
How Do You Say Christmas in French?
Many of you already know this. Christmas is Noël in French. It’s pronounced “no el”
We usually use it without article, just like Christmas (and not the Christmas) in English. However, Noël is a masculine noun, which shows in the adjective: joyeux Noël – merry Christmas.
Noël is Also A First Name in France
This may come as a surprise. Noël is also a popular first name (although a bit old-fashioned right now – I have an uncle named Noël).
Noël is for a boy, it’s spelled Noëlle (or Noelle) for a girl and they are both pronounced the same way.
When Do the French Celebrate Christmas? Christmas Day or Christmas Eve?
The Christmas meal in France is called “le réveillon de Noël” and usually takes place on December 24th.
But, things change and now, many French families have their traditional Christmas meal on December 25th. More about the true date of Christmas in France in my article.
What is L’Avent?
L’Avent is a religious tradition which dictates that four weeks before the coming of Christ, Christians prepare mentally for His arrival.
This period is symbolized by a big wreath with a candle une couronne avec une bougie, and a special calendar called le calendrier de l’Avent with a little nook for each day which hides a little treat: an image, toy or candy. You’re supposed to open one slot everyday: this helps kids count down till Christmas and teaches patience.
When Do the French Set Up Their Christmas Tree?
If you want to follow the Catholic tradition, le sapin de Noël (the Xmas tree) tree shouldn’t be set up before Christmas Eve, so on December 24th. It should be taken down twelve nights after, for the Epiphanie (the visit of the Kings).
In reality, there is no fixed dates. I like having a Christmas tree around the house, and mine is a fake tree (although fresh trees are still very popular in France) so I often set mine up on Thanksgiving! (Thanksgiving is not a French tradition by the way)
No Hanging Stockings in France for Christmas
Traditionally, we don’t hang stockings on the fireplace around Christmas time in France.
So where does Santa put the gifts? In France, Santa puts the Christmas gifts in shoes we place by the fireplace, as demonstrated in the Tino Rossi’s song – Petit Papa Noël
However, it’s not a very respected tradition. Nowadays, the numerous Christmas gifts are usually placed under the Christmas tree, or next to it. And you may even see a few stockings hanging down the mantel (if you are lucky to have a fireplace that is!).
French Vocabulary – Christmas Decorations and Ornaments
- Un sapin de Noël – Christmas tree (note we don’t use “un arbre” but “un sapin” which is ‘a fir
- Une boule – ornament (in a ball shape)
- Une guirlande – garland
- Une étoile – star
- Une guirlande électrique/ lumineuse – string of lights
- Une couronne – wreath
- Un bas, une chaussette – stocking
- Le Père Noël – Santa
- Un sucre d’orge – candy cane
- Un bonhomme en pain d’épice – gingerbread man
- Un bonhomme de neige – snowman
- Un cadeau – gift
- Un renne – reindeer
- De la neige artificielle – fake snow
- Un pochoir – stencil
- Un autocollant – sticker
- La crèche – manger
- Un santon – typical manger figurine
- Du gui (pronounced hard G + ee) – mistletoe
- Du houx – holly
- Une pomme de pin – pine cone
- Des branches de sapins – fir branches
Christmas Lights in France
At Christmas time, French towns and villages lit up with merry Christmas lights and decorations. Let’s study the electrical French vocabulary, and practice our French with this easy French English bilingual story.
People Just Don’t Go in The Street To Sing Christmas Carols in France
Although we do have many Christmas songs (watch a video of young Leyla singing “Petit Papa Noël”), caroling in the streets is just not a French tradition.
Actually, we don’t even have a term for it other than chanter des chants de Noël (to sing Xmas songs)
French Manger and Religious Vocabulary
La crèche (the manger) is quite popular in France.
It’s figurines are often made of clay, with special “santons” (manger figurines made in Provence, very life-like and depicting the nativity as it would happen in a traditional provençal village, with many people such as the baker, villagers etc…) which are often passed down inside the family.
Traditionally, the youngest child would add baby Jesus on Christmas day.
- Une crèche – a manger (the house)
- Une mangeoire – a manger (where the animals eat)
- Un santon – typical French manger clay figurine made in Provence
- La Vièrge Marie – the Virgin Mary
- Le petit Jésus – baby Jesus – here is my article about expressions using Jesus in French
- Un âne – a donkey
- Un boeuf – an oxen (note that in France, in the manger is not a cow, but a male oxen, although one cannot tell the difference!)
- Un ange – an angel
- Les Rois Mages – the 3 Kings – we have a special French cake for the 3 Kings’ day called La Galette des Rois
- L’étoile – the star
- Un berger – a shepherd
- Un mouton – a sheep
- Un miracle – a miracle
- Dieu – God – here is my article about expressions using God in French
- Prier – to pray
- Une prière – a prayer – here is my recording of the Hail Mary in French
- La messe de Noël – Christmas mass – here is my recording of the French Catholic mass
Saint Nicholas: The French Santa Claus
In Northern-Eastern France, Santa is often replaced by Saint Nicholas, and the gifts brought out to children on December 6th.
French Santa Vocabulary
- Le Père Noël – Santa
- Le Père Fouettard – Father Flog
- Un traineau – a sleigh
- Un renne – a reindeer
- Un elf – an elf
- Un cadeau – a gift
- Une cheminée – we use the same word for a chimney and a hearth
- Descendre dans la cheminée – to go down the fireplace
- Du lait – milk
- Des biscuits – cookies
- Écrire une lettre au Père-Noël – to write Santa a letter
- La liste des gentils enfants – the list of good kids
French Xmas Traditions – Practice With This Realistic Recorded Dialogue
For the Holidays, Olivier and I recorded a realistic dialogue to introduce you to both the French traditions and precise vocabulary used in France around Christmas and the Holidays. A great way to practice your French and learn the French Christmas vocabulary in context!
This article comes with audio, French transcript and an English translation. Share it if you like it!
Christmas in France is quite different from Christmas in Australia, as described in this article written entirely in easy French by my student Robyn!
What About Christmas Greetings in French?
To say to someone “merry Christmas”, we say “joyeux Noël”. The French don’t wish “joyeux Noël” to each other weeks in advance like it is done in the US. We only say it a few days before Christmas.
French people do send out Christmas greetings, and wishes for the new year, but it’s a tradition which is fading away.
The thing which is popular right now is to send out an end of the year recap, often on social networks such as Facebook – by the way, do you know the French facebook vocabulary?
French Christmas Vocabulary and Expressions
- Noël – Christmas. Note we usually don’t use any article with the word “Noël”. But it’s a masculine word.
- La veille de Noël – Christmas Eve
- Le jour de Noël – Christmas day
- Joyeux Noël – Merry Christmas
- Joyeuses fêtes de fin d’année – Happy Holidays
- Le Réveillon de Noël – Christmas meal
- S’embrasser sous le gui – to kiss under the mistletoe
- Décorer la maison – to decorate the house
- Passer Noël en famille – to spend Christmas with your family
- Faire des cadeaux – Give away gifts
- Ouvrir des cadeaux – Open presents
- Envoyer ses voeux de Noël – to send out Christmas wishes
- Je vous souhaite un joyeux Noël et d’excellentes fêtes de fin d’année – I wish you a merry Christmas and excellent holidays
For your convenience, I’ve listed in one single article all the French Christmas vocabulary and Expressions.
Typical French Christmas Food
With so many culinary delights in France, it’s hard to figure out what kind of food French people really eat around Christmas. Oysters and Foie-Gras are a sure thing, but fresh truffles and caviar are still very much for the wealthiest.
I wrote an entire article sorting out the myths and realities of the typical French Christmas meal.
You may also be interested in my:
- Christmas French Yule Log Recipe
- Christmas Chocolate Truffles Recipe
- Fresh Scallops and Foie Gras Sauce Recipe
Gift Ideas For Your French Speaking and Francophiles Friends
Now with Amazon.fr and many other websites delivering all over the world, it’s not difficult finding a French / France related gift for your francophile friends.
What a nice picture book about France ? Or maybe a French CD ? Or maybe a French perfume or French beauty product (a fancy French brand lipstick for example…)
For something more original, I would go for a French Christmas tree ornament, or maybe some magnetic French poetry words.
Of course, there is always French food related products: a recipe book, a cheese cutting board or cheese plates (a bit heavy), French mustards, French wines and Champagne (this is always sure to please me !!)!
But the best gift of it all would be a downloadable French Today’s audiobook to learn French like it spoken today. Don’t you agree? :-)
What About the New Year in France?
In French, we call New Year’s Eve “La Saint-Sylvestre” (pronounced “la sin(nasal) seal vay str”) or “Le Réveillon du Nouvel An”.
Celebrated during the night of December 31st, we usually party with friends and/or family, in a more or less formal way.
Wait! It’s not Quite Over Yet!!
On January 6th, the French commemorate the visit of the 3 kings with a special cake: la galette des rois. There is a whole tradition about it: you need to know about it if you don’t want to lose a tooth!!
Joyeux Noël et joyeuses fêtes de fin d’année!
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!
Learn French in context: check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.