If you love celebrating Christmas, France should be at the top of your festive bucket list. With the scrumptious feasts, magical markets, charming traditions and beautiful decorations, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of year in France. From the gift-giving Père Noël to the magnificent Réveillon and the Fête des Rois traditions, here is how to celebrate a real French Christmas. Joyeux Noël!
The festive cheer begins in France before December even arrives with the wildly popular tradition of Advent calendars. Children are given the calendars before December so they can eagerly await the 1st of December when they open their first door or window.
The Advent calendars have a chocolate treat hiding behind the door for each day until Christmas Eve on December 24th, and it’s a wonderful way to get excited in the countdown to Christmas. You can even get Advent calendars for adults, with everything from candles to wine filling the boxes for your December countdown.
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Marchés de Noel
The Marchés de Noel, or Christmas Markets, are one of the very best parts of a French Christmas. They’re found all over the country from Paris to Nice and Provence to Normandy. The biggest Christmas market is held in Strasbourg in the Alsace region and the very first French Christmas market actually originated in Alsace in 1570. They’ve been bringing the Christmas magic ever since.
You’ll discover charming wooden chalets decorated with lights and ornaments, all selling local handicrafts, artisanal products, and traditional French foods. So what are you waiting for? Grab a vin chaud rouge (French mulled wine) and rub shoulders with the locals at the best French Christmas markets.
Santa Claus is ‘Père Noël’ in France, and on Christmas Eve, he travels around the world handing out presents. The tradition used to be for French children to fill their shoes with carrots for Père Noël’s donkey and put them by the fireplace, but today that has been replaced with the Christmas tree.
Père Noël climbs down the chimney to leave gifts for good children, and on Christmas morning, the kids run to the tree to see what Father Christmas has brought them. Sometimes, families open gifts on the evening of Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass or the Réveillon.
For some families, the gift-giving season starts on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, French children put their shoes near the Christmas tree and sing songs or hear stories about Saint Nick. In the morning, all the good children will wake to find their shoes filled with treats. If they’re on Saint Nick’s naughty list, they get a bundle of twigs with a ribbon!
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A letter from Père Noël
It’s a Christmas tradition around the world to write to Santa – but in France, he writes back. The country passed a law in 1962 that said children who wrote a letter to Père Noël must receive a postcard back. The postal services have kept this up for four decades, replying to thousands of children on behalf of Father Christmas.
Traditional Christmas decorations
The French love Christmas decorations just as much as any country, but they tend to be more elegant here. These are a few of the most popular French Christmas decorations:
Christmas trees have been popular ever since the first Christmas tree was decorated in Alsace in the 16th century. The trees are traditionally decked out with ribbons, apples and paper flowers, and today you’ll see them with fairy lights, glittering baubles and a star on top.
You’ll spot Advent wreaths dotted around the country. The wreath is made of fir and pine tree branches, all decorated with red bows and pine cones. They also have four candles at the top of the wreath to symbolise the four Sundays in the lead up to Christmas Day. It’s tradition to light a candle each Sunday. If you want to check out the largest Advent wreath in France, head to the stunning Strasbourg Cathedral!
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Another French Christmas tradition is to make yule logs from cherry wood and display them in the home on Christmas Eve. Some people even pour red wine on the log so it smells wonderful when it burns. It was once tradition to leave the yule log and candles burning through the night with some food beside it, in case Mary and baby Jesus arrived in the night.
Festive dining table
For the Christmas dinner, it’s important to have the dining table looking beautiful and festive. You’ll often see three candlesticks on the table to symbolise the Holy Trinity. You may also see the French knot at the ends of the tablecloth to stop the Devil getting under the table.
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Crèche de Noël
Of all the Christmas decorations, the Crèche de Noël, or the Nativity scene, is one of the most important. These are no ordinary Nativity scenes – you can find entire villages and many different figures like the butcher, baker or police officer, all built around the classic manger scene which tells the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
The locals buy the figurines at Christmas markets and display their Nativity scene in their home until February 2nd. You can even find life-sized crèches in cities across France, or reproductions of the birth of Jesus with live actors.
The Réveillon is one of the very best (and most delicious!) French Christmas traditions. It’s the biggest meal of the holiday season, eaten on Christmas Eve, instead of Christmas Day. The meal is usually served before or after Midnight Mass, and it’s a luxurious banquet. Imagine all the best French delicacies like foie gras, escargot, oysters, turkey, goose and capon… Yum!
If you’ve ever heard about the French custom of eating slowly and indulgently, the Réveillon is the best example. The dinner can go on for hours, with friends and family enjoying each other’s company over good food and superb wine.
And don’t forget dessert! There are all kinds of chocolates, nougat and fruits, but the sweet star of the meal is the bûche de Noël, or the Yule log. It’s a log-shaped chocolate sponge cake that dates back to the 19th century and it’s totally delicious.
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The traditional Christmas church service is held on Christmas Eve in France. It’s known as the Midnight Mass and it usually begins at midnight or a few hours before. People come together in cathedrals and churches across the country to pray and sing carols (known as Chants de Noël). They celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, believed to have happened on that night. After the service, people return home to either sleep, eat, or open presents (for those with excited little ones).
Fête des Rois
Christmas doesn’t end on December 25th in France. The official end is the Fête des Rois, or Three Kings’ Day (also known as Epiphany to Orthodox Christians). In France, this day is celebrated with the famous galette des rois, or king cake.
It’s made with almond cream-filled pastry and a fève (tiny baby figurine) is hidden inside the cake. Whoever gets the slice with the fève is crowned the king or queen for the day. Most bakeries even sell the cake with a paper crown. It brings a very sweet two weeks of festivities to an even sweeter end, and it’s a wonderful tradition to end the Christmas season.
Are you dreaming of experiencing a real French Christmas? Let us know in the comments below!