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

From everyone at Remitly—Merry Christmas to our customers in France and around the world!

Many people in France look forward to Christmas time due to the many French Christmas traditions that make the holiday special. Here, we look more closely at how the French celebrate Christmas so that you can incorporate some French foods and festivities into your holidays.

Do people celebrate Christmas in France?

Around 83% of French people celebrate Christmas, largely due to the country’s history. France became closely affiliated with the Catholic Church in 800 CE. After that, Catholic holidays and festivals became commonplace throughout the country.

French society has largely shifted toward the secular in the modern age. Only 18% of people attend midnight mass and other church services as a part of their Christmas traditions.

Still, Christmas in France remains an important and highly anticipated holiday. Many French people now see the season as a time for giving and enjoying the company of friends and family rather than focusing on the holiday as a celebration of the birth of Baby Jesus.

During the Christmas season, cities and villages throughout the country hold festivals and Christmas markets, and families host parties and family celebrations.

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 are suitable for someone you know well or have only just met.

If you encounter someone from northern France, they may say “Nedeleg Laouen,“ which is “Merry Christmas“ in Breton, a language spoken in the Brittany region.

Christmas in France

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 (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 uniquely French twist.

Common traditions include all of the following:

The advent calendar and advent wreath

French families often purchase an advent calendar to count down the days until Christmas, when it’s time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Many of these include daily gifts of chocolate. Grocery stores begin selling the calendars around the end of November.

In religious families, advent wreaths are also popular. They are an evergreen wreath that surrounds three purple candles, one pink candle, and one white candle.

On each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, a purple candle is lit, followed by a pink. Then, on the 25th, families light the white candle in keeping with the Christmas tradition.

Les crèches

Families that observe Christmas as a religious holiday often set up elaborate Nativity scenes, or les crèches, in their homes. A traditional French nativity scene includes figurines like the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and often wise men and farm animals.

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 made of pine tree branches. Christmas decorations don’t follow a set color scheme. You’ll see ornaments, lights, and other decorations in every color of the rainbow.

Christmas trees appeared in France during the early 16th century, and nearly every city and town has at least one Christmas tree displayed in a public place.

Called “un sapin de noël” or “un arbre de noël,” the traditional French Christmas tree is a noble fir tree, but Nordmann and spruce are also popular choices.

Early Christmas trees in France were decorated with edible things like apples, candies, and dried cakes. Pine cones, dolls, and ribbons were also commonly used as decorations.

During the 19th century, blown glass ornaments were introduced, and they grew to become the decoration of choice for the modern French Christmas tree. However, some people still choose to decorate their Christmas tree with foil-wrapped chocolates and candies. This tradition is especially popular with French children eager to sample the treats.


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 an 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. French people attending midnight mass may gather with family for Christmas Eve dinner before church and then return home to continue the celebration into the wee hours of Christmas Day.

Christmas carols

Singing Christmas songs or Chants de Noël is a French Christmas tradition that many people enjoy.

Some popular holiday songs are traditional Christmas carols like “Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle” and “Il est né, le divin Enfant.” Others are secular tunes like “Petit Papa Noël” and “Vive le Vent,” the French version of “Jingle Bells.”

Learn more about the many Christmas songs that have become part of French Christmas traditions by checking out our list of some of our favorites.

Festive dining table decorations

Beautifully decorating the dining table when entertaining is a year-round French tradition, and the Christmas table in France is extra special. When you consider that Christmas Eve dinner in France can last for up to six hours, it’s easy to understand why people would want to put in the extra work to create a festive tablescape.

Often, people place three candlesticks at the center of the table to represent the Holy Trinity. The French may also finish each end of the table with a French knot. This Christmas tradition is rooted in the Middle Ages when people placed knots on table linens to keep out the devil.

Yule logs

For some families, placing a yule log in the fireplace is a key Christmas tradition. Typically made of cherry wood, the log is lit on Christmas Eve and burns throughout the holiday. Burning the log represents leaving the old year behind and is thought by some to invite good luck.

Christmas cards

To spread the Christmas spirit, many people in France send cards to friends and family. Since the advent of the Internet, this French custom has gone virtual, with some people now sending e-greetings instead of traditional paper cards.

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 or Saint Nicholas. In some areas of France, Père Noël, or Father Christmas, 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. The beloved figure wears red vestments and a matching bishop’s hat for his Christmas visits. Children often place their shoes by the fireplace for Père Noël to fill with gifts, and they leave carrots for Père Noël’s donkey.

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 occurs at midnight on Christmas morning or immediately before or after mass when families attend church.

Read on to explore some traditional French Christmas food.


Many French households include cheese on their Christmas menus. Typically, the French eat cheese after the main course and before dessert. Some popular varieties include Roquefort, brie, and Gruyere.

Foie gras

Foie gras is a duck or goose liver pâté, typically served with bread or crackers. It’s a delicacy in France and often served to bring more festive cheer to holiday celebrations.

Roast poultry

For the main course, eating roast turkey or goose is a common French Christmas tradition. As in other European countries, roast chestnuts accompany the slow-cooked poultry.


Many French people serve seafood to make the Christmas Eve meal even more decadent. Raw oysters are popular, as is Lobster Thermidor, a dish of lobster meat cooked in a sauce containing wine, egg yoke, and brandy.

Le 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. Usually, families eat the bûche de Noël for dessert with Christmas dinner.

La 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 gold paper crown to show their status.

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

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


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.

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


To get into the spirit of the holiday season, Lyon hosts the Fête des Lumières. In 2023, the event will take place from December 7 through December 10.

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

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


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 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.


The Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France, is arguably the most famous of the Christmas markets in France. It’s also home to the largest Christmas tree in the country.

Previously part of Germany, the city has a long history of hosting a huge market. The oldest Christmas market in France, the event draws artisans and craftsmen from throughout the region and visitors from all over the world. In 2023, the event will take place from November 24 through December 24.


Located in eastern France, Montbéliard hosts one of the most famous French Christmas markets. With more than 160 stalls, it’s by no means a small Christmas market.

In addition to providing a great place to do some holiday shopping, the market sells delicious foods and puts on a beautiful Christmas light display each year.

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