Can you feel the Holidays in the air?
When I lived in the US, the holiday season was huge. Stores, streets, private houses - gardens even - were decorated and Christmas carols were playing absolutely everywhere...
How is it in France? Is Christmas a big deal? Is it only a religious thing? What's typically French for Christmas?
In this article, I'll try to answer these questions and give you a feel for Christmas in France.
How does France look like at Christmastime?
This question is basic enough and yet difficult to answer... Because France is a small country, but with many distinct regions. And not every region has the same Christmas traditions.
One thing is certain, though: whether people are Christian or not, Christmas tends to be celebrated throughout France: it has transcended its purely religious meaning and is now an important family tradition.
So, generally speaking, come December first, the French start decorating the inside of their houses and bring in a real Christmas tree which is in time decorated with many kinds of ornaments ("les décorations de Noël").
Religious families may also display something quite French: little figurines representing the birth of baby Jesus. At minima, you'd have Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. But it can get much bigger with the ox and the donkey, the three kings, a couple of angels, and then even bigger with pretty much... all the people and trades you'd find in a typical French village! In France, this tradition comes from Provence: these little figurines are called "les santons" (m).
Nowadays, cities are also big on Christmas decorations: a big Christmas tree on the main square is a must, and so are electric garlands hung across streets, with stars, or maybe a sledge, or simpler ones wrapped around the city’s main avenue trees... Such electric displays are now popular in small and large cities alike throughout France.
Something that has change in my lifetime is the decoration of the outside of the private houses... More and more people will put a pretty big Christmas electric display in their garden, American style...
Outside decorations for Christmas were always common in the Eastern part of France, where under the German influence, people would often ornate their houses with Christmas tree wreaths, red bows etc...
But nowadays, the tradition of decorating the outside of the houses seems to have become a real trend. One neighbour starts... the whole neighbourhood follows...
The French Christmas Markets
Another strong-going tradition coming from Germany are the Christmas markets. Little wooden sheds built for the occasion where enthusiastic local craftsmen will sell you all kinds of seasonal goods: decorations, ornaments, and other gifts of all kinds, and - of course - food as well. If you ever go to Strasbourg at Christmastime, you won't be able to miss its world-wide famous "marché de Noël". I also enjoy strolling the Paris one, which is held on the end of Les Champs Elysées. Watch your wallet, though, both for the total price tag and pickpockets!
Not Always Santa
Did you know that in Eastern France and some parts of Europe, it's not necessarily Santa who brings the Christmas gifts? Saint Nick does, on the night of December 5th to December 6th.
Christmas Eve is then for some devout families purely a religious evening, culminating with attending the Christmas mass at the stroke of midnight.
The Christmas Meal
But what about the Christmas meal? Here again, different regions, different traditions. But usually, you'll be eating exquisite food and drinking the very best wines and champagne.
Typical Christmas food includes - but is by no mean limited to:
1 - oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon as starters,
2 - stuffed turkey, roasted ham, or something super fancy for the main course,
3 - a huge selection of cheese of course,
4 - and then we have a special Christmas cake: a yule log, which can be either a very rich and creamy rolled up pastry, or - more popular nowadays - an ice-cream in the shape of a log... A bit lighter at the end of such a scrumptious and rich meal!
Another quintessential question is: "when is the Christmas meal celebrated in France?"
Well, it depends... Traditionally, the big family meal is at dinnertime on the 24th. It's called "le Réveillon de Noël" and has to do with the verb "éveiller" which is to stay awake... for the midnight mass that is. But some families prefer getting together on the 25th for lunch, and others will feast on both days! In any case, should you be invited to celebrate Christmas with a French family, do double-check the time and the date!
Teaching numbers and patience
Lastly, December in France is a teaching time: French kids learn to read numbers and exercise patience with a special tradition called "un calendrier de l'Avent" (pronounce it like "avant"). How to describe it? It's sort of a thin but large box - usually made of cardboard - displaying little doors numbered from 1 to 24. Behind the doors? A little present such as a sweet or a little toy.
Nowadays, "les calendriers de l'Avent" are quite popular and reach a larger public: for example cosmetic brands have seized the opportunity to reach the women market by hiding behind the small doors a beauty cream or a perfume sample, a tiny soap, a tea candle...
Like in many countries, Christmastime is a magical time to experience France. I certainly love it. I hope you will soon have the opportunity to see it for yourself.
Joyeux Noël et joyeuses fêtes de fin d'année à tous !
Merry Christmas and happy Holidays to all!
If you’d like to know more about Christmas in France and the French vocabulary for Christmas (featuring audio recordings), follow the links to my articles on French Today:
Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, French audiobook writer and the co-founder of