Christmas may be celebrated in many parts of the world, but in France, that celebration may involve hot wine and oysters. And a lot of other things that you may or may not consider unusual. Here are 16 French Christmas traditions that are a bit different (but not too much of course, it is still Christmas!)
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1. Real Christmas trees
In France, people tend to get real Christmas trees. There are no percentages on this, excluding the people who are not Christian, but anecdotally if you walk around town, you will notice grocery stores selling real Christmas trees from around the 1st of December.
No plastic trees stacked in the garage or the basement, the fresh scent of pine and fir is calling.
The real trees are so popular, that several companies have started offering “rentals” of real Christmas trees, where the tree arrives with its roots intact to be replanted after the holidays. The best of both worlds, having a real tree but with less environmental impact.
2. Gifts in shoes
In North America, we may be used to hanging stockings, but in France, the children put out their shoes by the fireplace for Santa to fill with gifts and candy.
The famous French Christmas song Petit Papa Noël sung by a small child, has the sweet little line at end begging Santa to “remember his little shoe”.
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3. Vin chaud
Vin chaud, or Glühwein as it is called in German, is basically a hot mulled wine. North Americans may not be that familiar with it, but it is a winter staple in Europe.
With a mixture of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, anise, nutmeg, and citron zests, it is a lovely way to warm up on a cold winter’s night.
4. Postcard from Père Noël
Since 1962, when an enterprising French postal worker started opening and replying to children’s letters, the French postal service in the town of Libourne (near Bordeaux) opens and replies to every letter sent. It doesn’t matter whether you get the address correct or not, just mark your letter to “Père Noël“, and remember to include your own return address.
In addition, since this is the internet age, you can also pop a letter off to Santa from his website.
5. Marché de Noël
If you live in France, you know Christmas is coming once you start seeing the booths being installed in your town or neighborhood. The most famous Marché de Noël in France is the one in Strasbourg, but the one next to the Champs Elysées in Paris is not too shabby either.
With small rides, Christmas trees for sale, and everything from cheese, meats, lavender products, and any other artisanal product you can think of, these little Christmas markets will put a smile on anyone’s face.
Enjoy a raclette cheese sandwich and a vin chaud while you do your Christmas shopping.
6. Gifts are opened on the 24th evening
The night of December 24th is called the Réveillon de Noël (or veille de Noël), and it is actually this night when the big celebration is held in France. The big Christmas dinner with family and friends is usually on Dec 24th, after which is the traditional opening of gifts.
Of course, if you have small children, this is a bit difficult to explain how you are opening gifts when Santa hasn’t been by yet, so many French families do defer the gift-opening to the next morning.
7. Table decorations
For the big Christmas dinner, French people are not afraid to pull out the fine china. Even regular weeknight dinners will involve a proper table setting and napkins, so you can imagine that there are no shortcuts taken for Christmas.
9. Seafood is a must
Fresh seafood doesn’t really figure much on the Christmas menu in North America, but in France, it is a must. Everything from smoked salmon, fresh oysters, and coquilles st jacques will be on the menu. For the well-to-do, expensive lobsters will also be purchased for the dinner guests from the local poissonerie (fish shop).
8. Big dinners that go on for hours
This is the grand event of the annual calendar with the family, so along with seafood, the traditional French Christmas dinner involves everything from fois gras to the finest meats, several starters, sides and more.
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10. Bûche de Noël
One thing that is requisite in France, it is the traditional French Christmas cake. Known as the Bûche de Noël, it is usually a chocolate sponge cake in the shape of a log (bûche) covered in cream. They can be as elaborate or as simple as you want, but this is one French Christmas tradition that you cannot get away from.
11. Thirteen desserts in Provence
If you haven’t already eaten enough yet, you still have dessert (no the Bûche de Noël doesn’t count). In Provence, the tradition is to lay out an array of 13 desserts, usually starting the week before Christmas. This way all the visitors to your house during the Christmas holidays have something to nibble on while they visit.
It is not clear how this tradition got started, but the presumption is that it has something to do with the 13 Apostles and the last supper.
12. Crèches and the Santons de Noël
Another interesting Provençal Christmas tradition is the Santons de Noël. While most crèches (nativity scenes) usually only feature the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the animals, in Provence, they feature the whole village!
All sorts of folks from the typical French village, such as the butcher, milkman, postal worker, etc will be featured in the nativity scene as porcelain figurines. These figurines will be usually on sale at the Marché de Noël so that you can festoon your crèche as you wish.
13. Jesus is placed in the Crèche at midnight
If you walk by a crèche in front of a church in France before December 25th, you may realize that the Baby Jesus is missing. Nobody has made off with him, baby Jesus doesn’t officially arrive at the crèche until midnight of December 24th. Just in time for worshipers arriving for Midnight mass!
14. No boxing day
Brits and Canadians may be used to Boxing day sales, where people try to score large discounts on unsold merchandise, but there is no such thing in France. Instead, French people have to wait until the 2nd week of January for the soldes d’hiver (winter sales) which run for 4 weeks.
15. La fête des Rois
The baby Jesus may have been born on December 25th, but it took a while for the 3 Kings to arrive. The Christmas season (unofficially) comes to an end at Epiphany, otherwise known as 3 Kings Day.
It is not a public holiday in France, but is still recognized in schools and workplaces with a galette de roi. It is a pastry cake from Brittany, which has an interesting detail of a feuve (small figurine) hidden inside of it. The person who finds the feuve in his/her slice of galette is crowned King or Queen for the day.
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I hope you enjoyed that list of interesting French Christmas traditions! As a little gift, here are some free Christmas French-English flashcards for you to enjoy.
Joyeux Noël and à bienôt !