Your guide to a traditional French Christmas Dinner

Wondering what's on the menu at a traditional French Christmas dinner? Go behind closed doors and see how French people like to indulge at Noël.
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Christmas And New Year Holiday Table Setting. Celebration
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The French take their food very seriously. They also take Christmas very seriously. And so, as you can imagine, out of the many French Christmas traditions, eating is one of the most important! I’d venture to say that in France it is even more important than the gifts, and we all know that gifts are important 😉

In North America, we tend to cook a big meal, spread the whole thing out on the table, and then sit down and eat. But having lived in France for the past 10+ years, I have to point out that typical French dinner is a bit different. The French dinner is a spectacle. (And no, it is not just my family that does all this.)

If you are French and have been saving your fine china all this while, Christmas is the moment to bring it all out. Presentation is key. Even for ordinary meals, French people will use their fine napkins and good wine glasses, so you can imagine that they don’t hold back at Christmas (even if they there are little ones around!)

And as in a restaurant, there is a specific order: first the Starter, then the Main course and en suite the Dessert.  The French meal at home can be just as formal.

Each dish is brought out consecutively and meant to be focused on before the next one is brought out. This way each dish can be eaten at the right temperature rather than get cold from sitting out.

At a traditional Christmas dinner, all this goes up a few notches. And yes, usually each course is brought out separately. The meat dish and the vegetable dish will not be on the table at the same time. I’m usually in awe watching the hosts scurry back and forth, especially as guests are not expected to help.

Along with the dishes, the crystal ware is usually changed as well. Different wines will accompany each course, which means different glasses.

a) Apéritifs, appetizers, and snacks

As soon as guests start to arrive, a series of drinks will be brought out. A cocktail of guest’s choice, such as the famous pastis, kir royale, or mixed liquors (such as a whiskey coke). Other popular apéritifs are:

  • Dubonnet – sweet fortified wine
  • Suze – citric and herbal liquor
  • Pineau des Charentes – fortified wine made from grape and cognac
  • Lillet – made from wine and fruit liquor
  • La Pomme Givrée – crisp acidic apple flavor
  • Picon – Caramel flavored and bitter
  • Pommeau – apple juice and Calvados (apple brandy)
  • Byrrh – like a sweet wine, similar to port but slightly more bitter
aperitif illustration

Along with that will be a few “amuse-gueules, which could be everything from peanuts in a bowl to an assortment of elaborate canapés. Some examples of finger food snacks are:

pâté en crôute on a tray
Pâte en croute on a tray

b) Entrées (starters)

Once all the invitées have arrived, everyone moves to the dining table and the starters will be brought out. There could be one or many starters such as:

Yes, these starters are all very expensive, but the food is the focus of people celebrating Christmas in France, not gifts.

fois gras
Foie gras on a platter

You will notice there is an emphasis on seafood, and especially oysters are very popular at Christmas, as well as on New Year’s eve.

c) Plat (Main Meat dish)

Once everyone has their fill of appetizers, we’re off to the main meal. Unlike North America where the turkey tends to be enormous (no Turduckens here!), the French version is almost subdued.

main dish illustration

Because there are so many starter dishes that are delicacies, the meat will be smaller:

roast beef on a platter
Roast beef on a platter

If you are not sure what a capon is, it is a large chicken that has been specially treated to make the meat more tender.

Usually it is a young rooster that has been fixed, after which it is fed a diet of milk or porridge. Even though the preparation process makes the meat more expensive, it is supposed to be more flavorful. Perfect as the center piece of a Christmas dinner.

d) Vegetable dishes

Along with the main meat dish, will also come the vegetables such as:

The American favorite of roasted or mashed potatoes are not really featured here, and neither is cranberry sauce. The British brussel sprouts also do not usually make an appearance.

cauliflower gratin

e) Wine

Have I mentioned wine yet? There will be wine, likely a different one with each course. If you were planning on nursing your whiskey coke from the aperitifs, I can inform you that you were mistaken.

Wine bottle illustration
Wine bottle

You could maybe continue to drink it with your foie gras, but you better have started on wine somewhere before the roasted ham was brought to the table. As the French saying goes: “L’eau fait pleurer, le vin fait chanter”, meaning “Water makes one cry, wine makes one sing.”

wines in France
French wines in a grocery store

The type of wine being served usually doesn’t matter as long as it is French. Of course meat dishes will tend to be serve with red wine, while seafood and lighter dishes are served with white or rosé.

France has many different wine regions with a wide variety of wines, so there is plenty of choice!

f) Cheese

Once all the main dishes have been removed from the table, a platter of fromage (cheeses) will be brought out.

cheese dish illustration
Cheese Platter

The number and variety will depend on the hosts but there will usually be a minimum of:

You can read more about the different types of French cheeses, the proper cheese etiquette and more.

Cheese plate
Cheese plate

g) Champagne

Some French hosts might prefer to bring the champagne out with the starters, but chez nous, we have it with the cheeses and desserts.

2 champagne glasses clinking

There are many types of champagnes at varying price points. Each champagne house will have a secret formula based on the structure, fruitiness, body, and complexity of the grapes.

The best cuvees offer a harmonious combination of these characteristics while ensuring an appropriate balance of aroma, delicacy and freshness. While it can get pricey, no French Christmas meal could be complete without it.

h) Bûche de Noël 

The grand traditional dessert of a French Christmas is the log cake. It is usually a chocolate log cake, but I suppose you could go wild and try a coffee log cake or if you’re really out there: strawberry!

buche de noel French christmas dinner
Buche de Noël

Guests who are coming to Christmas dinner don’t usually bring wine as a gift but they may ask in advance if they can contribute by bringing the bûche de Noël.

Almost every patisserie across France will have their own varieties of log cake, so there should be something available for all tastes. A similar cake is also served in France at Easter and New Year’s eve.

i) Digestifs

With all that eating, everybody is going to need a digestif! Bring out the cognac or the brandy and relax.

While aperitifs are designed in a way to wake up the palate and leave you wanting more, digestifs are richer with a high alcohol content to soothe and relax and put you in the mood to unwind.

Some liquors have an alcohol content of more than 30%, so you will really want to pace yourself. Among the most popular French digestifs are:

  • Génépi – strong herbal liquor from the Alps
  • Cognac – brandy from the Cognac region of France
  • Armagnac – aged brandy from Armagnac that is similar to Cognac, but more popular in France
  • Calvados – an apple brandy
  • Chartreuse – a strong herbal liquor with 55-40% alcohol content
  • Grand Marnier – sweet and orange-flavored liquor

j) Tea or Coffee

It is the end of the dinner, and if you’ve been keeping track of the glasses we’ve had so far cocktail glass, wine glass, champagne glass, digestif glasses and now finally tea and coffee cups.

café (espresso) illustration

The guests likely can’t stay overnight (plan for a designated driver), so time for a bit of caffeine. Usually coffee in France is served expresso-style (yes it is spelled with an x), and not a giant Starbucks size cup.

Tea, of course, is served in normal size cups and saucers (think of tea with the Queen of England).

k) Regional French food

There are variations of course, depending on what region of France you are from. In Corsica, they will bring out some charcuterie, while in Alsace-Lorraine, they might bring out a quiche lorraine. And in Normandy, of course the emphasis is on seafood.

We might live in Paris, but our family is from Provence in the South of France, so we have beef, rather than a turkey. In Provençale cuisine, we also have an additional tradition of 13 desserts (!). 

13 desserts from Provence

Thirteen different desserts, like calissons d’aix-en-provence and nougats de montélimar will be displayed next to the dining table for guests to help themselves as they please.  (It’s a good thing I don’t have a sweet tooth.)

French Dining Etiquette

One of the quirks of French table manners is that you must finish your plate. Otherwise, the host will be offended. So as a guest, planning is key. Take a bit of everything, but not too much. This too is not so easy to maneuver, because you’re never quite sure how many dishes will be coming!

While this seems very complex and extravagant, but it is actually meant to encourage a long relaxing meal, allowing for conviviality and good digestion.  French people love to discuss and debate all sorts of topics, and a proper Christmas dinner among family and friends should take a good 4-5 hours.

And have I mentioned the vin chaud? This too should make an appearance somewhere during the Christmas meal. Thankfully, there is no eggnog in France! (There is a non-alcoholic version of vin chaud however, so there is that.)

So sit back, relax and enjoy a long leisurely Christmas dinner with your dear ones.  And while you are relaxing, do be sure to check out some of my favorite French Christmas songs and traditions.

From my family to yours, Joyeux Noël! (I hope you brought a stretchy pair of pants!)

☞ READ MORE: France in Winter: Visiting when it is cold (Brr)

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If you enjoyed that article and are looking to learn a few French words related to Christmas, you can download the free printable Christmas flashcards below. Joyeux Noël and à bientôt!

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