Your guide to a traditional French Christmas

Your guide to a traditional French Christmas

The French take their food very seriously. They also take Christmas very seriously, so as you can imagine French Christmas traditions are quite the affair!

In North America, we tend to cook a big turkey, some stuffing and side dishes, and then sit down and eat. French traditional dinners are a bit different. The French dinner is a spectacle.

French dining presentation

If you 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) Aperitifs (snacks)

As soon as guests start to arrive, a series of aperitifs will be brought out. A cocktail of guest’s choice, such as the famous Pastis, Kir, or Mixed liquors (such as a whiskey coke).

Along with that will be a few “Amuse-gueules, which could be everything from peanuts in a bowl to an assortment of elaborate canapés.

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

  • Fois gras on small brioche toasts
  • Caviar with canapés
  • Oysters
  • Coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops)
  • Smoked salmon with cream cheese
  • Lobster
  • Escargots (snails)

Yes, these starters are all very expensive, but the food is the focus of French Christmases, not gifts.

c) Plat (main Meat dishes)

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.

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

  • Roasted beef
  • Small Turkey
  • Ham
  • Capon (a large chicken)

d) Vegetable dish

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

  • Mushrooms
  • Green beans
  • Baked broccoli with lardons (bacon)
  • Salads

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.

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.

f) Fromage 

Once all the main dishes have been removed from the table, a variety of cheeses will be brought out. The number and variety will depend on the hosts but there will usually be:

  • Goat cheese
  • Roquefort
  • Camembert
  • Compté

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. Champagne is French, so no Christmas meal could be complete without it.

h) Bûche de Noël 

The grand tradition 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!

i) Digestifs

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

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 teacups. The guests likely can’t stay overnight (plan for a designated driver), so time for a bit of caffeine.

Regional French food at Christmas

There are variations of course, depending on what region of France you are from. In Corsica, they will bring out some charcuterie, while in Lorraine, they might bring out a quiche.

Our family is from Provence in the South of France, so they have beef, rather than a turkey. In Provence, we also have the additional tradition of 13 desserts (!). 

Thirteen different desserts 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.

So sit back, relax and enjoy a long leisurely Christmas dinner with your dear ones.  And from all of us, Joyeux Noël from our family to yours. (I hope you brought a stretchy pair of pants!)

If you enjoyed that article and are looking to learn a few French words related to Christmas, don’t forget to download my free printable Christmas flashcards here.

Joyeux Noël and à bientôt!

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