What is a French Christmas? It’s similar to many European countries, but, of course, with a few Gallic differences. The French are very good at grand celebrations and they do like a good festive day. And this year, given the Covid-19 pandemic, French Christmas traditions seem even more important.
When does the French Christmas all kick off?
Some families start with Advent, which in 2020 falls on Sunday November 29th. Always the Sunday that falls between Nov 27th and December 3rd, it’s celebrated in France with more than just a Calendar.
You’ll see Advent wreaths (Couronnes de l’Avent) throughout France. Made of fir and pine tree branches topped by four candles, they mark the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Traditionally each candle is lit on each Sunday before Christmas.
La Fête de Saint Nicolas
In eastern and northern France the Feast of St. Nicholas marks the real beginning of the Christmas season. It falls on December 6th and the Christmas period lasts until epiphany on January 6th.
St. Nicolas is particularly important in Alsace, Lorraine (of which he is patron saint), Franche-Comte, Nord-Pas de Calais, and Brittany.
St. Nicholas is patron saint of many people, including children. So on his Saint’s day, families gather together and tell stories around the Saint. The most common one is of three children who wander away from home and get lost. Lured into a butcher’s shop, the children are promptly killed by the butcher and salted away in a barrel. Along comes St. Nicholas who revives the children and sends them back to their family to live happily ever after. It’s comforting to know that French children’s stories (and nursery rhymes) are as bloodthirsty as ours.
And of course, children get sweets, gingerbread biscuits and a brioche shaped like a saint that day. It’s a big deal in France. You might see St. Nicholas wandering through a town accompanied by Père Fouettard (the wicked butcher). He’s the one who’ll tell St Nicholas who are the naughty children who don’t deserve presents or sweets. French Christmas traditions as far as families are concerned chime in with the rest of the world.
At home, children put out shoes in front of the fireplace before they go to bed. Lo and behold, they’re full of chocolates and gingerbread the following morning. So it must be true.
French Christmas Markets
In a normal year (not 2020), France has some of the best Christmas markets in Europe. Wooden huts fill the streets; big wheels and ice rinks attract families and the cafes, bars and restaurants do a roaring trade. It’s particularly attractive to the British who flock over the Channel to the north France markets to stock up on Christmas items, wine and spirits and take in the party atmosphere.
If you’re in France this year you’ll find small versions of Christmas markets – maybe a series of stalls selling local produce so keep your eyes open.
Strasbourg, which holds the oldest Christmas market has stalls selling the local specialities. Try bretzels (soft pretzels with a bread texture); bredeles (little spiced biscuits shaped like stars and sometimes iced as well); knacks (sausages of all types); pain d’epices (gingerbread which you will find all over France), and of course wash it down with vin chaud (mulled wine).
Part of French Christmas traditions: Son-et-Lumière Spectacles
The French have perfected those fabulous son-et-lumière shows, the sound and light extravaganzas that are now part of their summer and winter festive seasons. Stand in front of any number of buildings in any number of towns and cities at night and watch as lights race across the façade of a cathedral or historic building. A voice, heavy with emotion (always and in French) recounts the tale.
The first ones I saw were in Chartres in the summer and it was a truly magical experience. We walked around the town with a map, going from church to theatre to church to bridge and down streets with huge figures of pilgrims reflected on the walls. Now such sound and light shows are all over France, and they always come out again for Christmas.
The idea has taken hold, particularly in major cities like Amiens and Avignon. In 2013 the city of Le-Puy-en-Velay, the nearest city to my house in the Auvergne set theirs up. The city, one of the major starting points of medieval pilgrimages to Santiago da Compostela in Spain, lights up its marvelous but strange religious buildings perched on the pinnacles of volcanic rock that rise up from the town.
Streets Light Up for a French Christmas
French cities, towns, and villages all dress up for Christmas. Streets sparkle with lights hung from lamp posts, from trees. Buildings get covered in fairy lights; it’s all very festive.
French Cathedrals and Churches at Christmas
Despite a muted Christmas this year, many of the great cathedrals and churches of France will be lit up and many will have towering Christmas trees, either outside or in the nave. It’s one French Christmas tradition that the French must preserve.
Sélestat, between Strasbourg and Colmar in the heart of Alsace, has an unusual Christmas event, well known in France. Once again, 10 decorated Christmas trees will be suspended from the arches of the nave of St. Georges church. They show how Christmas tree decorations have changed since the 16th century to today.
Most cathedrals and many churches put up a crèche, depicting the birth of Jesus. Some of these are life size; others are small; some date back years. Many are decorated with santons, hand-painted terracotta figures that are produced in Provence.
French Christmas traditions are similar to most other European countries. You’ll find a fir tree or sapin de Noël everywhere. In front of town halls, churches and chapels and down main streets of towns and cities.
And of course, in people’s homes. In a long tradition stretching back to the Romans and beyond, trees were originally decorated with red apples, a reminder of temptation, and communion wafers which symbolized redemption.
From the end of the 16th century, artificial flowers made from multi-colored paper decorated the trees. Then metallic decorations took over and the trees seemed covered in silver and gold.
Christmas trees have a special significance in Alsace. The Bibliotheque Humaniste in Sélestat holds a manuscript dating from 1521. It was written by the town’s accountant who recorded a payment of four shillings to the wardens of the forest who protected the fir trees. The town’s inhabitants could take a tree from the forest to decorate “as has been done since time immemorial.”
In 1870 and 1871 the Franco-Prussian war forced people out of Alsace to find homes in the rest of France. They took their traditions with them and Christmas trees became popular throughout the country.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas run from December 25th to January 6th. Twelve is significant: 12 days and 12 night represent the twelve months of the year, the 12 hours of a day and the 12 apostles of Christ.
Christmas Eve December 24th
The French start a day before, on Christmas Eve. Le Réveillon takes over as families cook up a feast. If you want to get an idea of the scope of what’s on offer, go to any supermarket or any food shop in a French town where the shelves groan with fish, shellfish, meat, geese, capon and more sweet things than you could ever imagine.
French Christmas Feast
The meal on Christmas Eve has to be tasted to be believed. Dishes will start with seafood then go on to include roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose and venison. Cheese boards groan before the dessert, a chocolate sponge cake log called a bûche de Noël.
That is unless you’re from Provence in which case you take in 13 different desserts.
This particular French Christmas tradition is just part of the French well-deserved preoccupation with good food.
La bûche de Noël (Yule log) – A log-shaped cake made of chocolate and chestnuts. Representative of the special wood log burned from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day in the Périgord, which is a holdover from a pagan Gaul celebration.
More on Christmas celebration foods and exactly what you should expect.
Christmas Day December 25th
Christmas Day is, not surprisingly, rather quiet, given the excesses of the night before. But many shops are open. Some families go to church in the morning, nip into their favorite bar or café, do some last minute shopping then go home. France shuts down in the afternoon as the French snooze the day away.
Boxing Day December 26th
It’s back to normal for the French unless it falls on one of those days when shops shut (usually Monday), or museums shut (usually Tuesday).
Epiphany January 6th
Epiphany celebrates the Three Wise Men (or the Three Kings, depending on which version you prefer) arriving from the East to see Jesus guided by the Star of Bethlehem.
In France today, it’s celebrated with La Galette des Rois, a round cake which is cut into pieces and distributed by a child, known as le petit roi or l’enfant soleil. Hidden inside the cake is a bean la fève. Whoever gets the charm is made King or Queen for the day with a partner of their choosing.
Wherever you are, I wish you a Joyeux Noël.