How the French celebrate the holidays

How to celebrate a festively French Christmas

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Prepare a festively French Christmas with this guide to French Christmas songs, French Christmas food and Christmas decorations in France.

France is a sophisticated country with several cultural influences and diverse French Christmas traditions. It's easy to join the festive season with these few traditions of Christmas in France, although you may find a few French Christmas traditions that delightfully differ from back home.

Christmas in France

Christmas in France is a time for family and for generosity, and is marked by family reunions, gifts and candy for children, gifts for the poor, Midnight Mass and le Réveillon.

Most provinces celebrate Christmas on 25 December, which is a public holiday in France, however the celebration of Christmas in France varies by region.

In eastern and northern France, for example, the French Christmas season begins on 6 December with la fête de Saint Nicolas, and in some provinces la fête des Rois is one the most important holidays of the Christmas season. Epiphany (la fête des Rois) is usually celebrated on 6 January, but in some places in France it is celebrated on the first Sunday after 1 January.

In Lyon, 8 December is la Fête de lumières, when Lyonnais pay homage to the Virgin Mary by putting candles in their windows to light up the city. There are also numerous events held to celebrate the New Year in France.

Christmas in France: French Christmas, Lyon

Christmas decorations in France

One of the most important French Christmas ornaments requires setting up a nativity scene in your home with small clay figures of the saints. This is also known as a crèche. You can find these figures at the annual local craft fairs around France.

The traditional way to decorate your Christmas tree is with red ribbons and real white candles. Some people consider this rather dangerous but as long as you follow safety protocols, you should be able to enjoy your lovely French Christmas ornaments without fear.

Christmas decorations in France: French Christmas ornaments

French Christmas food

You can prepare the grand French Christmas feast of the season, called le Réveillon (which means 'awakening'). This is a late supper served on Christmas Eve following the Midnight Mass. It signifies the recognition of the importance of Christ's birth. During le Réveillon, the French serve a Christmas cake, or bûche de Noël, which is shaped like a Yule log, while the rest of the French Christmas food is based on the region you live in (read about the top French foods). For instance, in Paris, oysters and pâté de foie gras are served. In Alsace goose is a popular selection and in Burgundy turkey is served with chestnuts. But most importantly, don't forget to bake sugar cookies in the Christ child's form.

The Catholic Church originally mandated that no meat was to be eaten on Christmas Eve. Therefore, families usually serve meatless French Christmas food. After the supper, 13 desserts are served which are an important part of French Christmas food. Those desserts represent the 12 apostles and Jesus at the Last Supper. While more than 13 desserts can be served, it is considered good luck to eat 13 and stop at that number.

The desserts often vary according to region but some of the usual French Christmas desserts are:

  • candied fruits
  • little cookies
  • bûche de Noël 
  • nougats
  • green melons
  • quince paste
  • raisins
  • dates
  • oranges
  • dried figs
  • hazelnuts
  • almonds

Christmas in France: French Christmas food

Letters to Santa

Parents should remind their children to leave their shoes (sabots) in front of the fireplace, so that Père Noël (Father Christmas) can fill them up with gifts. Expect Père Noël to visit your house before Christmas Day in France, accompanied by Père Fouettard who keeps track of how well children have behaved in the past year.

In France in 1962, a law was passed decreeing that all letters written to Santa would be responded to with a postcard. When a school class writes letters to Santa, each student gets a response. So even though you may not be a child anymore, don't forget to write a letter to Santa!

French holidays: Santa letters

French Christmas songs

There are many favourite French Christmas carols (Chants de Noël or just Noëls), as well as adaptions of international carols with French lyrics. Below are a few of the most popular French Christmas songs.

  • Petit Papa Noël: a French favourite, similar to the popularity of Jingle Bells, about the arrival of 'Little Santa'.
  • Vive le Vent: sung to the tune of Jingle Bells.
  • Le Bonhomme de Neige: a song about a snowman.
  • Douce Nuit: sung to the tune of Silent Night, although with different words.
  • Medley Chants de Noël: Québécois singer Garou has united some of his favourite French and English Christmas carols into bilingual songs.
  • Mon Beau Sapin: 'My beautiful Christmas tree' to the tune of O Christmas Tree.
  • Noël Bland: White Christmas
  • Joyeux Noël: Happy Christmas
  • Le traîneau du Père Noël: The sled of Santa Claus
  • Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant: The Devine Child
  • L’Enfant au Tambour: The Little Drummer Boy
  • Minuit Chrétien: Christian Night
  • Entre le Boeuf et l’Ane Gris: 'Between the Ox and the Gray Donkey' is reportedly one of the oldest French Christmas songs from around the 16th Century.


Below are the French and English lyrics to two French Christmas songs.

Petit Papa Noël

Petit papa Noël: Little Father Christmas
Quand tu descendras du ciel:
When you come down from the sky
Avec des jouets par milliers:
With your toys by the thousands
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier:
Don’t forget my little slipper
Mais avant de partir:
But before you leave
Il faudra bien te couvrir:
Be sure to wrap up
Dehors tu vas avoir si froid: You’ll be very cold outside.
C’est un peu à cause de moi:
That’s kind of my fault.

Vive le vent

Vive le vent, vive le vent: Long live the wind, long live the wind
vive le vent d’hiver: Long live the winter wind

qui s’en va sifflant, soufflant: That whistles and blows
dans les grands sapins verts: Into the green pine trees
Vive le temps, vive le temps: Long live the weather, long live the weather

vive le temps d’hiver: Long live the winter weather
boules de neige et jour de l’an: Snowballs and New Year’s Day
et bonne année grand-mère: And Happy New Year grandmother!

Click to the top of our French Christmas guide.


Expatica

Photo Credits: Clara Giraud (Lyon Light Festival), Caitlin Childs (bûche de Noël). / Updated 2017.

 
 


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