Christmas is an important religious but also familial holiday in France, and there are many French Christmas traditions. So let’s talk about Christmas in France
Joyeux Noël ! Merry Christmas in French!
Let’s explore the French Christmas traditions. Should you have more questions, don’t hesitate to ask me in the comment section below.
1 – Christmas Traditions in France
So Christmas is definitely in the air… but maybe a little bit less than it is in other countries: I lived in the US for 17 years and over there, Christmas was everywhere !!
In France, stores don’t necessarily play Christmas songs, and wishing people Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas) is only done the week of Christmas in France… So not too much in advance.
Although the French don’t necessarily decorate the outside of their houses with des guirlandes éléctriques (string lights), French towns usually do and so do stores. Strolling “les grands magasins” in Paris at Christmas time is really a pleasure: the Christmas tree at “les Galeries Lafayette” is spectacular and worth a detour!
2 – When Do the French Celebrate Christmas?
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: you’ll see when the French hold their Christmas family reunion but also when the typical French Christmas mass are celebrated.
3 – What is The French Christmas Tradition of “L’Avent”
L’Avent (pronounced exactly like “avant” (meaning before – not the t silent for both) is a religious tradition which dictates that starting four Sundays 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 every day: this helps kids countdown till Christmas and teaches patience.
Each year, the exact beginning date of the Advent changes since it starts on the 4th Sunday before the 25th. Well, in theory. In practice, most French Christmas Advent calendars start on December 1st (and end on the 25th).
4 – 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 date. 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)
5 – The French Christmas Present Traditions
Like in many countries, the French exchange presents 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!).
Many towns will have un marché de Noël – A Christmas market in France: 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 and Christmas markets are very popular among French people.
What about sending a French gift to your friends for Christmas?
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. A French Christmas tree ornament is a good idea, or maybe some magnetic French poetry words.
But the best gift of it all would be a downloadable French Today’s audiobook to learn French like it is spoken today. Don’t you agree? :-)
6 – “La Crèche” – An Important French Christmas Tradition
“La crèche” is an important French Christmas tradition. It’s part of the French Christmas decorations, and is an important part of the French Catholic traditions around Christmas.
“Une crèche” – a manger in English – features many little figurines, also called “santons” in Provence, representing towns folks as they gather around the stable for the birth of baby Jesus.
The essential characters of “la crèche” are Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, usually a donkey and an ox, sometimes the 3 kings.
My daughter Leyla and I made our own Christmas manger: what do you think of it?
7 – No Christmas Carol Tradition in France
Although we do have many Christmas songs (watch a video of my daughter 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 Christmas songs)… It’s sometimes done in some cities – I mean nothing forbids it – but caroling is not a typical French tradition.
8 – Who is 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.
Learn about the French Santa and practice your French with my bilingual article.
9 – Are Greetings Still a French Christmas Tradition?
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.
To wish someone Merry Christmas in French, 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.
10 – Traditional 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.
Don’t believe everything you read! If oysters and Foie-Gras are a sure thing, fresh truffles and caviar are still very much for the wealthiest… And have you ever heard of the French thirteen Christmas deserts?
There’s so much to say on this subject that I wrote an entire article sorting out the myths and realities of the typical French Christmas meal.
That pretty much ends the long list of French Christmas traditions, but that doesn’t mean the Season’s festivities are over..
I invite you to read my articles about how the French celebrate New Year in France.
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!
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