If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like in France during the Christmas holiday season, here are a few things you’ll notice that are French traditions at this time of year.
Some are very similar to customs elsewhere, like in the U.S., but others are typically French.
🗓 Advent Calendars:
In bookstores (“librairies”) and supermarkets throughout France, Advent calendars are on sale. French children open their first ‘window’ of their calendars on December 1st. This Christmas tradition builds their excitement and anticipation about the upcoming holiday.
🎄The Christmas Tree or “Sapin de Noël” and Shoes:
A Christmas tree is usually purchased during the first week of December and kept until the week after the New Year’s holiday.
On Christmas Eve French children (and a few grown-ups, too) put a pair of their shoes under the Christmas tree or near the fireplace. That way Santa (“Père Noël” ) can find them and fill them with small presents or treats. This would be the equivalent of Christmas Stockings hung on the fireplace mantle in the U.S. and the U.K.
🌠A Nativity Scene:
Nativity scenes (“Crèches”) are often displayed in French homes. They’re composed of beautiful hand-made clay figurines called “santons” which are sold at Christmas markets.
The village of Aubagne, in Provence, is famous for its talented artisans, called “Santonniers,” that craft these figurines of all sizes by hand. See Maryse di Landro’s website for a huge selection of santons, including delightfully dressed figurines of provençal daily life.
🎅🏻 Christmas Markets or “Le Marché de Noël”:
Christmas markets are big in France. There’s one going on now in my neighborhood: Artisans have set up stands in the form of wooden chalets to sell their crafts, gifts, and French gourmet food such as foie gras, confit de canard, mulled wine and Christmas cookies from Alsace.
The largest Christmas Market in Paris lines both sides of the lower portion of the Champs-Elysées, near the Place de la Concorde.
The “Christkindelsmärik” in Strasbourg in the Alsace region, is the oldest and most famous Christmas market in France, with many traditional French products to buy as gifts.
🍰 Pastry shops have a special cake :
If you’re in France during December and often until just after New Year’s, you’ll see the typical French Christmas Yule Log cake, the “Bûche de Noël,” make its annual appearance in pastry shops.
I love this cake because it often has a lot of buttercream in it, which is my weak spot.
Historically, it’s linked to the burning of a log for the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. The log had to be one that burned slowly, so as to last the entire night of Christmas. In certain regions tradition required it to burn until the Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas, symbolizing the 12 months of the year. Some say these were pagan traditions inherited from the Celtic Winter Solstice festivities many centuries ago.
The eponymous cake served today dates from around 1870, in remembrance of this yule log custom. It’s comprised of a rolled genoise layered with buttercream (often chocolate or coffee-flavored) and coated with frosting.
It’s usually decorated with miniature objects evoking the forest, like pine trees, a lumberjack, or little mushrooms in meringue or marzipan.
Today, France’s uber-talented pastry makers stray far from tradition and let their imagination go wild. So you’ll see very different interpretations: like the bright red Bûche de Noël I saw at my favorite Parisian tea shop, Mariage Frères. It’s name (roughly translated) was the “Draped Christmas Strawberry Bûche de Noël.”
And the ingredients? It was filled with a Japanese Matcha green tea buttercream, and candied wild strawberries scented with Mariage’s Christmas Tea. The genoise cake was almond flavored and “draped” in a red buttercream infused with their Rouge Passion tea. There were also a few candied rose petals on top. It’s not very traditional, but Oooh là là, what creativity!
🥂 “Le Réveillon” or Christmas Eve Dinner:
The big French family dinner takes place on the evening of December 24th, not the 25th. This is a long, home-cooked meal with many courses, and it can go on for hours.
The evening starts with an apéritif of usually champagne and wine, with sodas or fruit juice for the children.
Elaborate efforts are made to have a beautifully decorated dinner table. Guests are expected to dress their best, too.
It’s common to put three candlesticks on the table to represent the Trinity. An interesting French Christmas tradition is to knot the ends of the tablecloth so the Devil can’t get under the table!
⛪️ Church Services:
A Midnight Mass service is held on Christmas Eve and is an important Christmas tradition in France for many people.
However, in my experience, Christmas Eve is more often reserved for the hours-long family dinner (and the placing of the shoes under the Christmas tree before going to bed).
Some French families in large cities now seem to prefer going to church early on Christmas morning before returning home to open presents with the family.
✍️ French Christmas Wishes or “Voeux”:
The French don’t send cards to friends, distant relatives and acquaintances before Christmas, like in North America. Instead, they wish each other Joyeux Noël or Bonnes Fêtes verbally when they cross paths with someone during the holiday season. And it’s very important never to wish anyone a “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before midnight on New Year’s Eve: some believe this brings bad luck for the upcoming year!
However, greeting cards of “Meilleurs Voeux” (Best Wishes) are traditionally sent for the New Year. It’s custom to reciprocate and express your good wishes to those who have sent you theirs, usually within 24-48 hours after receiving them.
Close friends and family prefer to telephone on New Year’s Day or a few days later to express their “Voeux”. You can greet someone with your “Meilleurs Voeux” for the New Year verbally up until the last day in January.
And now you: What do you think of these Christmas traditions? Are they similar to yours? Leave a comment below and let me know!
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com