Arts & Culture

Christmas Traditions in France


Article written by Elisa - Travel Writer & Local in France
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Christmas in France

Even if France is a secular country, the French are still influenced by the Catholic religion and its traditions. Noël in French, the 25 of December is still marked in red in our calendars and we are happy to take some days off until the end of the year.

How does France celebrate Christmas? What are the main French Christmas traditions? Below, we list the most popular Christmas traditions in France, from food to main events and more.

Popular Traditions in France for Christmas

1. The Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar is a very special calendar used to help us count down to December 25. Even if it is originally from Germany, the Advent Calendar is today one of the most popular traditions during Christmas in France, especially amongst kids.

The Advent calendar is a cardboard object containing 24 (sometimes 25) closed boxes. It is intended to keep the children patient throughout the month of December and until Christmas Day. The idea is to give each new day a little present.

2.Christmas Markets

When it comes to Christmas Markets, France has something to say. From late November, the run-up to Christmas sees town squares all over the country filled with festively decorated Christmas markets selling handcrafted goods, delicious comfort food, and mulled wine.

The Alsace Christmas Markets are the most picturesque. Amongst them, the Strasbourg Christmas Market is the most famous (and oldest!) in France and the Colmar Christmas Market is often rated amongst Europe’s most beautiful Christmas Markets. Here’s the list of the best Christmas Markets in France, with something for everyone.

3. Christmas Decorations in France

The traditional Christmas wreath, which dates back to the celebration of the winter solstice, is made of holly branches intertwined in the shape of a wheel and hung on its front door. The idea is to show, from the beginning of December, that the Christmas spirit has taken already over the house and they always offer a warm welcome to its guests.

Christmas lights and decorations usually pop up in the streets of France around mid-November and they offer a warm welcome to visitors and cheer everybody up during the shortest days of the year.

Shopping windows are also specially decorated for the holiday season. We call window shopping ‘lèche-vitrine’ window licking which when it comes to pastry shops at Christmas is about right! In the shopping malls of Paris, the shopping windows and the Christmas decorations inside are something to see!

4. The Letter to Santa

From November or early December, good boys and girls like to write a letter to Santa asking for some presents. During Christmas in France, you can find Santa in the Christmas Markets, shopping malls, and other Christmas-related places so kids can hand him the letter directly.

5. The Christmas Tree

Christmas Markets in Alsace

Le Sapin de Noël or Christmas Tree is perhaps the oldest Christmas tradition in France. Did you know that the first written mention of the Christmas Tree was in Sélestat, Alsace, in 1521?

The Christmas tree is usually bought at the beginning of December and decorated at home with the family. Every year we try to renew the Christmas Tree decorations a little, and we always find something special in the local Christmas Market.

The Christmas Tree usually brings more light at home and it is the ideal place to put the Christmas gifts for everyone.

6. Christmas Gifts!

One of the most acclaimed traditions for Christmas in France, gifts are usually placed at the foot of the Christmas Tree, wrapped in pretty decorated papers, while the large hanging socks are filled with sweets.

People usually open the presents on December 24, after dinner, or on December 25 in the morning. For the amount or kind of gifts, every household is different. For example, we avoid gifts made with plastic or gifts that need batteries.

7. Christmas Carols

While this tradition is less important in France than in other Anglo-Saxon countries, Christmas carols are still largely part of the holiday traditions in France. Here, you may hear choirs singing Christmas carols in Christmas markets, or in large shopping centers.

8. Christmas Mass

Even if France is today a secular country, it is still very common to hear church bells ringing on Sunday and Christmas Eve. The Midnight Mass is still one of the main Christmas traditions of France and it takes place on 24 December at midnight.

Traditionally, families like to go together to the Christmas Mass in town (or in the neighborhood) after the Christmas meal, the opening of the presents, and some digestifs.

Quirky French Christmas Traditions

9. The Christmas Sweater

Personally, I am not fond of this Christmas tradition in France, especially when a colleague decides to organize a ‘Christmas sweater day’ in the office.

Initially, the Christmas sweater was a gift from a knitting-passionate grandmother.  Many of these sweaters were gorgeous in intention but quite horrible to look at. However, everybody wore it on Christmas day as a way to thank her for the present.

Christmas sweaters still exist today but ready-to-wear brands have replaced grannies. They offer more ugly and kitsch models adorned with reindeer noses, Santa Claus, elves, pixie hair, and other raised details.

Christmas Food in France

10. Christmas Sweets!

Christmas sweets are one of the main Christmas food traditions in France. There are many traditional Christmas sweets around France impossible to summarize in this article. However, we all like chocolates of all kinds (pralinés are very typical of Christmas), and chestnuts (grilled or glazed). If you cannot live without gingerbread during your Christmas in France, head to Alsace.

11. French Christmas Dinner (Christmas Eve)

There French Christmas dinner is the most important meal of any Christmas celebration in France. It takes place on the evening of the 24 December and usually gathers the closest family.

The importance of the French Christmas dinner is different in different households, and the food delicacies also vary depending on the region.

However, there are some musts in a French Christmas Eve dinner! A traditional French Christmas dinner always includes oysters, salmon, and foie gras for a starter, all washed down with an apéritif. A typical French Christmas dinner also includes turkey or a capon stuffed with chestnuts as the main course, and a good bottle of red wine. Then a cheese platter and finally, the desserts, traditionally a bûche de Noël (Christmas log cake). Drinking champagne is also typical of a Christmas meal in France.

READ MORE – typical French drinks (other than wine).

12. La Galette des Rois

The Galette des Rois (Kings’ cake) is one of the last holiday traditions in France and we use to eat it for the Epiphany, on 6 January. The Epiphany is a Christian celebration commemorating the visit of the three kings when Jesus was born.

The Galette des Rois consists of flaky puff pastry layers with a dense center of frangipane or apple and it is delicious!

Even if this tradition comes after Christmas, boulangeries, and pastry shops start offering Galettes des Rois early in December. Until Epiphany, it is common to share a Galette des Rois in the office or fall into the temptation of buying an individual one for our afternoon tea.

And there you have it, the list of best traditions in France for Christmas, what are your favorite French Christmas traditions?

Read more about Christmas in France