French Christmas traditions & customs

Oct 31, 2012 by

One of the most fascinating things about Christmas is always that it is celebrated differently by every country all over the world. Each has its own customs which could vary considerably from its neighbours – incredible when you think that some are mere miles apart.

French Christmas traditions

French Christmas traditions

In France, Christmas is called ‘Noël. It represents a time when families get together and reconnect, celebrate the entire year that’s about to pass. Probably one of the greatest holidays in the calendar, Christmas is marked by gifts and candy for kids, gifts for the poor, Midnight Mass, and le Réveillon. The celebration of Christmas in France varies from region to region. Generally most regions celebrate Christmas around the 25th of December, that is a public holiday. That said, in a few provinces especially ones in eastern and northern France, prefer to get an early start to their Christmas season, as soon as the 6 December (la fête de Saint Nicolas). For example in Lyon, 8 December is la Fête de lumières, once the French honor the virgin Mary by putting candles within their windows. It’s quite a sight seeing the city lit up by these candles.

French Christmas Traditions

French children take their shoes in front of the fireplace, hoping that Père Noël (aka Papa Noël) will fill all of them with gifts. Candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys may also be hung on the tree overnight. In certain regions there’s also Père Fouettard who provides spankings to bad children (kind of the equivalent of Santa Claus giving coal towards the naughty).

A good case in point may be the different traditions observed by England and France – separated in the closest point by just 26 miles water. While we put up trees, have a lazy dinner and worship the BBC’s festive offerings, how’s Christmas celebrated in France?


As you may expect, food plays a big part within the proceedings. One of the biggest French Christmas traditions is La Reveillon – an essential family feast that takes place in your own home after midnight mass.

Dishes vary regionally, from lobster in Paris, chestnut-stuffed turkey in Burgundy and goose in Alsace, however the sentiment remains the same. Dessert is usually buche de noel or yule log, however in Provence, the feast culminates with thirteen desserts, each one of these to represent Christ and also the Twelve Apostles.


While some French households might erect a Christmas tree or arbre de Noel, it’s not the main decoration. Instead the majority of homes display a nativity scene, referred to as a crèche de Noel. Each crèche comprises the standard figurines (santons) of Wise Men, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus, plus – unusually – Provincial villagers, for example milkmaids, fishermen, washerwomen, etc.

The tradition grew throughout the French Revolution, when church nativity scenes were forbidden and midnight mass banned. This

French Christmas traditions & customs

French Christmas traditions & customs

resulted in people setting up crèches in their homes to pay. The santons are usually made from clay by craftsmen within the south of France, who sell them at various fairs in December.

A Yule Log may also be burned in French homes from Christmas Eve to New Year, which is an ancient Pagan Gaul tradition. This really is most likely to be found in Southern French houses, but many families now make reference to it just as a cake.

Père Noel

Father Christmas’s French incarnation started out the story of Saint Nicolas, who traditionally gave children an orange along with a small gift. However, with the increasing influence of america, Père Noel has been transformed into the red-cheeked, jolly fellow we all know today, his trusty donkey substituted with a sleigh and reindeer.

Whipping the ‘bad’ children fit is Père Fouettard – aka The Bogeyman – who’s said to punish naughty children. Using the Americanisation of Christmas, Père Fouettard has been largely forgotten, but nonetheless exists in some French regions.


Historically, gifts weren’t exchanged in France until New Year’s Day. However advertising in newspapers led individuals to give gifts, to children particularly, on Christmas Eve. Children would leave their shoes through the fireplace and hope that Pere Noel would fill all of them with small gifts – though some are now using stockings. It wasn’t until the 1960s that paying for gifts increased in line with – again – the American influence.

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