10 French Christmas Traditions

Christmas wreath made by our friend Daan.

Christmas wreath made by our friend Marjo

Like every country in Christendom, France has a range of Christmas traditions, local and nationwide. I explore a few in this post. Christmas used to be lower key, less commercialised and of shorter duration than in the UK. During our 20 years here, this has changed somewhat. Christmas decorations, toys and boxes of chocolates are creeping into the shops earlier each year. And I’m afraid I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of the 10-metre high Père Noël that appeared outside our local Leclerc supermarket in November. He does have a function, though, more of which below.

 1. Christmas crèche 

Christmas crèche at Parisot

Christmas crèche at Parisot

The French are very attached to their crèches. Every church has one, and sometimes you find them in unusual places, like the life-sized one mounted every year in a cave just outside the village of Loze. Some controversy has arisen, however, about putting them in public places, since they are religious symbols that are contrary to France’s lay society.

Crèche in a cave at Loze

Crèche in a cave at Loze

In Provence, the crèche’s occupants are known as santons. These are painted terracotta figurines representing not only la Sainte Famille but also traditional characters from village life.

2. Père Noël

Hopeful children throughout France have been penning and posting their missives to Père Noël. The gigantic Leclerc Santa presides over a special postbox for these important epistles. I didn’t know until recently that a French law of 1962 decreed that every letter to Père Noël must receive an answer via a postcard. Someone has their work cut out… 

3. Christmas markets

Christmas markets originated in 14th-century Alsace. Since then, the tradition has spread throughout France.  I don’t remember any in this region when we first moved here in 1997, but nearly every village now holds one. A huge Christmas market takes place in the Place du Capitole in Toulouse every year.

Our village market took place in the huge salle des fêtes a couple of weeks ago and attracted many stallholders and punters. 

4. Chants de Noël

Carol Service at Parisot

Carol Service at Parisot

The British have imported carol services to France. As far as I can work out, they were not a tradition here previously. They still mostly consist of English carols with a sprinkling of French ones.

However, it seems that chants de Noël in Occitan – the ancient language of much of southwest France – are more of a tradition. The tiny Romanesque church at La Salvetat des Carts, near Najac, has hosted concerts of Occitan carols in previous years.

5. Christmas log

In parts of France, notably the south and Corsica, a bonfire was lit in front of the church on 24th December, fuelled by wood from around the village. This was no doubt a throwback to a much older pagan custom. The villagers took a handful of cinders to add to their own hearth for good luck.

In Corsica, it was customary to add a log to the hearth for every person present at the Christmas meal. If the number of logs was fewer, the people represented by the missing logs would die before the following Christmas. Another custom required a log to be burned for each person absent from the festivities. 

6. Midnight Mass

Eglise Saint-Andéol at Parisot

Eglise Saint-Andéol in Parisot

Christmas Eve marks the start of the celebrations. It was formerly a great tradition (if not virtually compulsory) for the French to go to Midnight Mass. French country novels are full of descriptions of families who trudged several kilometres through the snow to their local church.

I have been to Midnight Mass only once, when I was drafted in to swell the ranks of the choir. Not being a Catholic, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do and found it all a bit lengthy. However, the proceedings were considerably brightened by the children’s lack of inhibitions in the nativity play.

7. Christmas meal

In some places, Midnight Mass was preceded by a copious meal and followed by a soupe à l’oignon; in others, the meal came afterwards (le gros souper). Today, French people normally eat their main Christmas meal on Christmas Day. The traditional menu is foie gras, turkey with chestnut stuffing and bûche de Noël (Christmas log), a rich confection of chocolate cake filled with chocolate cream. 

8. Les Treize Desserts

In Provence, the main Christmas meal is followed by 13 desserts, symbolising Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper. The desserts normally include a combination of fruit, nuts and sweets. Generally, four of the desserts, called mendiants (beggars), are dried figs, hazelnuts or walnuts, almonds and dried grapes. They symbolise four religious orders.

Also included is a cake called Pompe à l’huile, made with orange flower water and olive oil. It is obligatory to taste each dessert in order to enjoy good luck all year round.

The meal is eaten at a table laid with three tablecloths and three candlesticks, representing the Trinity. The ends of the tablecloth are knotted together so that the Devil can’t get under the table. 

9. Shoes by the fireplace

Ever the optimist, the SF has already put his clogs by the fireplace

Ever the optimist, the SF has already put his clogs by the fireplace

French country novels describe how the children left their sabots (wooden clogs) by the fireside and awoke to find small gifts left by Père Noël, such as homemade toys, sweets or an orange.

There is a lovely description in Jean Anglade’s La Soupe à la Fourchette of two children in the Auvergne finding in their sabots wooden toys lovingly crafted by the grandfather – a little wheelbarrow for the girl and a haycart pulled by two cows for the boy. 

10. Christmas Greetings

Mistletoe - abundant in our area

Mistletoe – abundant in our area

French people wish each other Joyeux Noël or, more commonly, Bonnes Fêtes, accompanied by the usual round of bises (kissing).

They might also add, “…et une bonne fin d’année.” Never, ever should you wish anyone “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before midnight has struck on 31st December. This brings bad luck.

A couple of years ago, I started to wish a French friend Bonnes Fêtes etc and she became quite agitated. She thought I was going to wish her a premature Happy New Year. I wasn’t, since I knew the rules, but she interrupted me before I could finish by saying, “Oui, oui, une bonne fin d’année.”

I would love to hear of any other French Christmas traditions you know about – national or local.

You might also like:

A Crèche with a Difference
Midnight Mass in France
To Crèche or not to Crèche
Seven Signs of Christmas

Copyright © 2016 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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19 Responses to 10 French Christmas Traditions

  1. Pingback: 10 French Christmas Traditions – ellywrightart

  2. Good morning Vanessa.
    I enjoyed your article and found the greeting section very useful. Down here in the Alpes Maritime the mountain village of Luceram is renowned for it’s Christmas chreche. It’s a nice place to visit, high up and quite spectacular.

    http://www.recreanice.fr/circuit-creche-luceram-village-noel-programme

    Best

    Peter Horrocks

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Hello, Peter. I’m glad the greetings info was helpful – it took us a while to work all that out! Thank you for the link to the crèche – looks a lovely place. Merry Christmas.

      Like

  3. Osyth says:

    I have offered les treize desserts in England several times since we often have our Christmas meal on Christmas Eve as my husband has his birthday on 25th (monumentally inconvenient if you ask me) …. we enjoy the ritual of tasting each one (and they are tiny tastes) in order. Here in Cantal things are pretty much as you describe them …. of course my ex-patriated romantic wannabe French soul would like no change to the really traditional French Noël but the winds of change are apparent here as anywhere else … Père Noëls adorn most houses climbing up ropes to peep in windows, the elves become more Disneyfied, Mass is not attended by everyone (and certainly not me because I find it overlong as I do most Catholic mass), but the food is very much of one order – a turkey or a chapon will follow foie gras and desserts vary (we are too far north for les treize) but there will certainly be buche de Noël and business as usual the next day. The biggest fuss here is undoubtedly for St Sylvestre a week later and yes, woe betide you wishing a bonne année before Midnight. Fortunately we will be driving back from England on le vieille so there shouldn”t be much opportunity for faux pas!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I have an irrational hatred of those climbing Santas and I’m more than a little sorry that Christmas in France seems to be going the way of Christmas elsewhere. We also have our à deux Christmas lunch on Christmas Eve, since we’re normally celebrating with friends on 25th. Your husband must have had a miserable childhood with people providing one present that had to do for Christmas and birthday! I always feel sorry for people born on Christmas Day. St Sylvestre seems to be more of an occasion for celebration here and then it’s back to normal.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Osyth says:

        My husband asked me to tell you never to go to Hawaii as apparently the climbing Santas are even more virulent there than here! His Childhood Christmas was a day divided … the morning up to The Queens Speech was Christmas including lunch and afterwards inducing ‘tea’ (he’s a scouse) was his birthday. He got more than one present and I fear would rebel if I tried a merger!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Remind me to avoid Hawaii in that case! I’m so glad to hear that your husband had a 25th December of two halves – and especially that he got more than one present. That seems absolutely right and proper. I hope he has a fabulous Christmas/birth Day.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        I just gave our details to Eurotunnel as you now have to when travelling to Britain – the sweet lady operator said ‘oh bless! Wish him a happy Christmas Birthday’ so coupled with your kind wishes he is positively spoiled! We are very much hoping that we might be able to meet up whilst we are back in France these next 7 months. It’s a teeny bit overdue! Happiest of Happy Christmas’s to you and SF from us both

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        That was nice of her to notice – and especially to say something. A lot of people wouldn’t. Yes, a meeting is definitely on the cards. I hope we might get up there in May, weather and other things permitting. Bonnes Fêtes!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. My husband and I retired at the end of June and had moved into our home here (purchased March of 2015) by July 10. We enjoy reading your blog and appreciate your thoughtful suggestions for places to visit and things to do. Our area in the southwest has a wonderful “Crèche Tour.” The tour is approximately 70 km long, with eight or so villages participating in elaborate mechanical village scenes with a crèche tucked away in each scene. There are restaurants listed in the Crèche Tour brochure to make the day even more special.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for reading my blog and I hope you find plenty of interesting things to see and do. We certainly haven’t exhausted the possibilities of this lovely region in 20 years here. Your description of a “Crèche Tour” rings a bell and I’m sure I have read about it in previous years. It sounds a lovely idea – especially with restaurants strategically placed along the route!

      Like

  5. Thanks for the timely reminder about not wishing anyone ‘bonne annee’ before 1st january. Every year i forget and write it into my christmas cards to french friends…oops. Not written them yet this year so will desist! Intersting how les anglo saxons have imported some traditions. I saw a recipe for mince pies in a french magazine recently and our local presse has a super selection of christmas cards this year. When we first moved here twelve years ago all i could find were rather mean little packs of ‘bonne annee’ cards. Off to a carol concert this evening with a childrens choir singing which will bring on the christmassy feeling. Bonne fetes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      There have certainly been some cross-cultural exchanges since we moved here. The selection of Xmas cards around here is still a bit sparse. I haven’t looked at the price recently, but when we first moved here, they were terribly expensive, so I used to buy them in the UK. French people don’t seem to send cards much, except perhaps to family and very close friends. They still prefer to send New Year’s cards.

      Like

  6. Lesley says:

    Thank you for that lovely description. We are not able to move to France yet as we are looking after my mother with dementia, but we are preparing to by researching as much as possible at the moment. When we are able to move we hope to have learned a lot so that we understand the traditions etc. I have just started to look at your posts and they are very insightful. Thank you. X

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your situation with your mother. It’s a very good idea to research as much as you can before you move. We could certainly have done more! I hope you find my posts useful. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about moving to/living in France. You can always contact me via the form in the Contact tab at the top of the page.

      Like

      • Lesley says:

        Thank you for your message. Also many thanks for offering advice. I am very sure that I will contact you especially nearer the time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Please feel free to ask anything, while recognising, of course, that I am not an expert and can only present my own opinions and experience.

        Like

  7. rosrendle says:

    Where we lived in the Pas de Calais the soupe de l’oignon was always eaten on New Year’s Eve. Well usually New Year’s Day at about 5 in the morning for those hardy enough to still be up. Not for me!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      They do that on New Year’s Eve here, too, but it’s usually a soupe au fromage, which is also eaten after Midnight Mass. I can’t eat anything at that time of night…

      Like

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