Christmas in France: Common Holiday Traditions, Activities, and Celebrations

France became closely affiliated with the Catholic Church in 800 CE. After that, Catholic holidays and festivals became commonplace throughout the country.

Although French society has largely shifted toward the secular in the modern age, Christmas in France remains an important and highly anticipated holiday.

During the Christmas season, cities and villages throughout the country hold festivals and markets, and families host parties and family celebrations. Here, we look more closely at what Christmas is like in France so you can incorporate some French foods and festivities into your holidays.

How do you say “Christmas” in France?

In France, Christmas is called “Noël.” The most common way to say merry Christmas is joyeux Noël. To pronounce the phrase, say “jwa-YOU No-ELL.”

Other appropriate greetings for the season include:

  • Joyeuses fêtes (jwa-YOU fet), which literally means “happy holidays”
  • Bonnes fêtes (bone fet), which literally translates to “good holidays” but means the same as “happy holidays”
  • Meilleurs voeux (MAY-ur voo), which means “season’s greetings”

Although French has both formal and informal modes of speech, any of the above phrases is suitable for someone you know well or have only just met.

Eiffel Tower

How is Christmas celebrated in France?

For the French people, Christmas is a time to gather with family. Even people who do not view themselves as religious often celebrate the holiday.

In France, Christmas is a public holiday. December 25, Christmas Day, is one of the jours fériés, or holidays when most French schools, government buildings, shops, restaurants, and offices close to give employees time to spend with family.

Many communities hold festivals and special events in the days leading up to Christmas and the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Common Christmas traditions in France

Many Christmas traditions in France are similar to ones practiced in Europe and North America but with a unique French twist.

Common traditions include:

  • Advent calendars: French families often purchase an advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas. Many include daily gifts of chocolate. Grocery stores begin selling the calendars around the end of November.
  • Les crèches: Families that observe Christmas as a religious holiday often set up elaborate Nativity scenes, or les crèches, in their homes. These vignettes often include a number of figurines beyond the traditional figures of the Nativity story.
  • Lights and decorations: Placing lights around doors and windows is common in both homes and shops in France. Most cities and villages decorate lamp posts with lights or evergreen garlands. Christmas decorations don’t follow a set color scheme. You’ll see ornaments, lights, and other decorations in every color of the rainbow.
  • Gift-giving: Giving gifts to loved ones is a traditional part of the holiday season in France. Research conducted by Statista shows that Christmas gifts are the biggest expenditure for French people during the holiday season, with average spending of 372€ per shopper. Normally, adults exchange gifts on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas morning.
  • Midnight mass: Although many French people don’t attend church services for Christmas, the Catholic midnight Mass is the most popular service for those who do.

Christmas dinner

Christmas in France for kids

During the Christmas season, French kids look forward to the arrival of Le Père Noël, the French version of Santa Claus. In some areas of France, Père Noël makes his first visit to French children on December 6 in honor of the feast of St. Nicholas. Wearing a brown fur-trimmed cloak, he delivers candies and small gifts.

Throughout France, Père Noël also visits on Christmas Eve, leaving toys and other gifts for children. For his Christmas visits, the beloved figure wears red vestments and a matching bishop’s hat. Children often place their shoes by the fireplace for Père Noël to fill with gifts.

Children often write to Père Noël to ask him questions and provide a gift wish list. In 1962, France passed a law stating that any letter written to Père Noël must be answered by the country’s postal service in the form of a postcard mailed to the child.

Traditionally, Père Noël has a mean sidekick named Père Fouettard. His job was to leave onions and coal for bad children or threaten them with whips. This darker side of the Christmas tradition is no longer common in France. However, you may still see representations of him when reading about the history of Christmas in the country.

During the holiday season, French television stations run animated programs and movies for families to enjoy. Some of the most popular animated 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 Tales)

What is traditional Christmas food in France?

It’s common for families to enjoy a large, traditional meal for the holidays. The French also enjoy various sweet treats throughout the holiday season.

Christmas dinner in France

Although traditions vary, Christmas dinner often takes place at midnight on Christmas morning or immediately before or after mass when families attend church.

Some typical foods found on a French holiday dinner table include:

  • Cheese
  • Foie gras, a duck or goose liver pâté, typically served with bread or crackers
  • Roast turkey or goose with chestnuts
  • Oysters or lobster

Other Christmas foods in France

Some foods in France are only eaten during the holiday season, such as:

  • Bûche de Noël: This classic log-shaped, cream-filled sponge cake is iced with chocolate and decorated with marzipan mushrooms and leaves to resemble a Yule log. Normally, families eat the bûche de Noël for dessert with Christmas dinner.
  • Galette des Rois: On January 6, the French celebrate La Fêtes des Rois, or Three Kings’ Day. The Galette des Rois is a traditional part of the festivities. This tart has a small figurine called a fève’ hidden

inside. Whoever gets the fève’ becomes the queen or king for the day and wears a crown to show their status.

What are some great places to travel in France during the holidays?

While people celebrate Christmas all throughout France, some cities are particularly well known for their festivities.

Strasbourg

Dijon

Home to multiple Michelin-rated restaurants, Dijon is a well-known haven for foodies. During the Christmas season, many restaurants offer special meals, and the entire city glows with lights.

There is also a public ice rink set up at the Place de la Liberation, and train rides for children are offered at Place Darcy.

Lyon

To get into the spirit of the holiday season, Lyon hosts the Fête des Lumières. In 2022, the event will take place from December 8 through December 11.

This festival of lights includes dazzling outdoor displays, and many galleries open their doors to exhibit special works. Even residents of Lyon get in on the fun by decorating their windows.

Paris

Paris is known as The City of Lights year-round, but at Christmas, the name becomes even more fitting. Shops are decorated for the occasion, and there are public Christmas markets held in many locations.

One of the most famous markets takes place at the Tuileries Garden and includes carnival rides and musical performances.

Sarlat

Home to traditional medieval architecture, Sarlat gives visitors the feeling that they’ve stepped back in time.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the village located in Dordogne sets up an ice-skating rink and heated chalets for warming up. After skating, you can tour a traditional Christmas market and drink mulled wine or Christmas beer. Typical food includes truffles, roasted walnuts, and foie gras.

Strasbourg

The Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France, is arguably the most famous of the Christmas markets in France.

Previously part of Germany, the city has a long history of hosting a huge market. The event draws artisans and craftsmen from throughout the region and visitors from all over the world. In 2022, the event will take place from November 25 through December 23.

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