Christmas in France: Facts About French Christmas Traditions

Here are some facts about Christmas in France.

  • In some parts of the North and Northeast of France, Christmas is celebrated on December 6th. This is the feast-day of Saint-Nicholas, and le Pere Noel (Father Christmas) brings the children sweets and small presents.

  • On Christmas Eve (December 24th), French children traditionally placed their shoes by the fire and awoke on Christmas Day to find them stuffed with small gifts, and the branches of the family’s Christmas tree full of fruits and nuts and small gifts.
  • Most French children open their Christmas presents on Christmas Day, but many French adults don’t. They wait until New Year’s Eve.
  • In the past, many French people attended Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and many still do in the present day. After the service, they would have a feast at home or in a local restaurant. This meal is called le réveillon, and it is made up of a starter of snails, oysters, seafood or smoked salmon, a main course of roast goose or turkey, and served with lots of wine.
  • Even in households who don’t attend church,  the main Christmas meal is usually eaten on Christmas Eve. Great care is taken to make the table look festive, and special ornaments are often used as decorations.
  • In French custom, Saint-Nicolas is assisted by Father Spanker or the Whipping Father (Père Fouettard). Dressed in black, Father Spanker decides which children have been good and deserve their Christmas presents, and which have been bad and deserve a spanking.
  • Many French families give money to public servants such as binmen and postmen as a way of saying thank-you for the work they have done during the year.
  • French Christmas markets are very popular and usually take place in late November and during the month of December. Two of the most famous are the Strasbourg Christmas Market (which has been running since the 16th century) and the Lille Christmas Market
  • Christmas crackers aren’t pulled at French Christmas meals.
  • Many French people visit a circus during the Christmas period.
  • The Christmas tree is the main form of Christmas decoration in most houses. Traditionally, they were decorated with apples, ribbons and paper flowers. Although the custom of decorating trees in France at Christmas time can be dated to the 1300s, the tradition really took off in the late 1830s.
  • The French often hang mistletoe above the doors in their homes to bring good fortune for the coming year.
  • A Yule log is a traditional Christmas dessert in France, usually made from chocolate sponge cake with chestnuts.
  • Some French families exchange their gifts on January 6th, the Feast of Kings, or the Feast of Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. Traditionally, a pastry (the gallette des rois – cake of kings) is eaten on this day, with a charm hidden inside. The person who finds the charm is named King or Queen and must wear a paper crown and must provide the cake for the next party.
  • A nativity scene is a common Christmas decoration in French houses. Characters include the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and other more unusual figures (or santons), such as bakers, fruit and vegetable sellers, local noblemen, a blind man, a woman selling fish, a scissors grinder and a roast chestnut seller. The scenes are often displayed until February 2.
  • Mainly in the south of France, traditionally families burnt a wine-soaked log on their fire from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day. This was meant to bring good luck. Nowadays, most people eat a chocolate Yule log instead.
  • Merry Christmas in French is Joyeux Noël. Father Christmas is le Père Noël and Christmas tree is le sapin de Noël.
  • In Lyon a Festival of Lights takes place in early December. The buildings of the city are lit up and the streets are decorated with Christmas lights.

What next? Learn more about France.