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Things to Know about French Christmas Traditions and Customs

Rashmi Sunder
December is one of the most joyous and festive seasons that ushers in the birth of Jesus, the reunion of friends and family, music, merriment, and feasts. We look into the colorful world of France and the French traditions and customs that have been followed for centuries.

Start of a New Era

On the 21st of December 1521, in the town of Sélestat in Alsace, a Christmas tree was mentioned for the first time in history.
Christmas celebrates the birth of a new life, miracles, togetherness, and love. It is a time when families and friends come together, sit around the fireplace singing carols, sipping on wine. In a corner, a brilliant tree dazzles with the colorful lights and beautiful ornaments.
And back in the kitchen, ladies would be preparing a delicious feast for the whole lot. While the basic traditions of the festival remains the same across the globe, the customs, the methods of celebration, the cuisine and the music changes from place to place.
We set our sights on the romantic country of France, where Christmas is celebrated with great fervor, albeit very different from Christmas as we know it. Interestingly, the celebration of Christmas was introduced to France by the Romans and the very first French Christmas celebration took place in A.D. 496 in Reims.
We look into their culture, and their practices from Mass to feast, Nativity to Christmas gifts, and everything in between.


♦ For the religious families, Christmas in France begins with the Advent, which is four Sundays building up to Christmas.
♦ Though most Christmas celebrations begin from the 24th of December, in Eastern and Northern France, Christmas starts on the 6th of December with the La fête de Saint Nicolas or the 'Feast of Saint Nicholas Day'.
♦ In Lyon, La Fête des Lumières or the 'Festival of Lights' is celebrated on the 8th of December, where the people keep lit candles in their homes to pay their respects to Virgin Mary.
♦ The La Messe de Minuit or 'Midnight Mass' takes place on Christmas Eve.
♦ This is followed by Le Réveillon or 'The Awakening' which is an enormous feast that goes on for hours and includes friends, family, and neighbors.
♦ Epiphany or La fête des Rois translated as the 'Feast of the Kings' is celebrated on the 6th of January or on the 1st in some places.

A MERRY FRENCH CHRISTMAS: Traditions and Customs

Advent Calendar

In France an Advent calendar is presented to children. Originally they contained images of holy figures, but today these colorful calendars are filled with goodies for the children like small toys and chocolates. It is presented by the local postman or firefighter. Each door or window pertaining to specific date can be opened to reveal fun images and gifts.

Advent Wreath

This wreath is made of holly, and branches of pine and fir. It is knotted with bows and four red candles, where each candle is lit on each of the Sundays leading up to Christmas.

Nativity Scene

In France, the tradition of putting up a Christmas tree was not as widely practiced as that of setting up the Nativity scene.
Instead of the traditional tree, you would often find the corner decked up and decorated - a scene depicting the birth of Jesus in the manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph, and the flocks of visitors from shepherds, to the Three Kings, to the fishermen to local authorities that were incorporated into the scene.
There is a 'crèche', and the little figurines came to be known as 'santons' or 'little saints'. These figurines were made in the region of Provence and can be of two types - the clay figures called santons d'argile and the clothed figures called santons habillés by craftsmen known as santonniers.
The first known setup dates back to the 6th century where it was referred to as ad praesepe.

In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi created the first living nativity.
When public display of the Nativity was banned during the French revolution, people started making miniature versions in their homes, and since then the tradition stuck on. Some of the characters portrayed by the figurines apart from Mary, baby Jesus and Joseph, are:
♦ Marius
♦ The angel Boufareu
♦ Saint François d'Assise
♦ The Shepherds
♦ A priest
♦ Bartoumieu
♦ Animals like the donkey, sheep, ox, and lamb
♦ A blind man and his son
♦ Old man Grasset and his wife Grasseto
♦ A Bohemian woman carrying a child
♦ Fisherman and fisherwoman
♦ A water carrier
♦ Le Ravi, a town crier
♦ A knife and scissor grinder
♦ A tambourine player
♦ A basket maker
♦ Le Pistachié
♦ The wise men - Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they carried respectively.

Santa Claus and Le Père Fouettard

In France, Santa Claus is referred to as Père Noël or 'Father Christmas'. He is accompanied by Le Père Fouettard or the 'Bogeyman', who has coal marks on his face, and is dressed in black, and who is known to spank the naughty kids. So if you're in France, you better be nice!

Yule Log

This tradition started in the 12th century and is still practiced in some regions of France. Here, the families go out on Christmas Eve and select a tree which the men cut down and bring home. They circle the living room thrice, after which the log is placed in the fireplace.
Oil, wine, and salt are poured on top of the log for added fragrance. After a prayer, the young girls of the house, or in some parts, the mother lights the log with splinters from the previous year. This log is generally kept burning from Christmas Eve to the Epiphany (lit in the evening or day and put off after midnight to make it last).

Christmas Tree and Decorations

The Le Sapin de Noël or the Christmas tree is a practice that is slowly gaining popularity in France.
First introduced to the country in 1521, the tree was originally decorated with apples, dried cake, pine cones, nuts, paper flowers, candles, and ribbons. A fir tree was traditionally used as it symbolized 'eternal life'.
Today you will find numerous ornaments, trinkets, candy, and lights amongst other things. The baubles are now one of the most common Christmas decorations.
Baubles first came by in 1858 when a drought resulted in a poor harvest of fruits, which led a glass blower from Goetzenbruck, a village in Lorraine, to replicate the apples with blown glass. These days you'll find ornaments that are made from glass and plastic. Chocolate ornaments wrapped in foil are also hung.
Tinsel, which first originated in Germany, is found adorning the tree, and was made in sliver before has now been replaced with plastic. The French use pearl tinsels to decorate trees. 'Lametta' resembling angel hair, called Cheveux d'Ange was made in Lyon since the 15th century. These are used instead of tinsels to add sparkle as they are lighter in weight.
12 Candles have to be lit on a tree according to tradition, and because of the cost of wax, they were replaced by flexible candles or nut shells filled with oil. Today, with regard to safety measures, candles have been almost completely replaced by electric lights.
The top of the Christmas tree is adorned with a star (representing the Bethlehem star, or the Northern Star that guided the Three Kings), an angel, or an oriental crest called 'cimier'. The colors used are gold, which symbolizes the sun, red, which symbolizes warmth, colors of Santa's outfit, and green - which represents the trees, and the idea of hope.

Poinsettia Flower

The Poinsettia flowers are often used to decorate the house because it's red and green hues are reminiscent of the colors of Christmas, and its pointed leaf reminds us of the star.
A mistletoe is hung above the doors in France even during Christmas as a symbol of luck and good fortune. They are sometimes found as hollies which are accompanied by pine cones and fir sprigs.


Christmas presents, known as Les Cadeaux de Noël, is given out on the 6th of December itself. For others, little children leave out their wooden clogs known as 'sabots' on Christmas Eve filled with little toys and candies by Père Noël. They also wake up to find fruits, nuts, and gifts near the Christmas tree. Adults, receive their presents on New Year's Eve.


The Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is followed by the Le Révellion which is a big feast that includes friends and family. The French are known for their delectable cuisine, and they leave no leaf unturned when it comes to probably the biggest meal of the year.
The feast generally starts with wine. Mulled wine is red wine nfused with spices and is served hot or warm.
Appetizers are also served, which could be in the form of foie gras. Amuse-bouche like the cheese platter, assortment of nuts, and charcuterie is also served. Escargot or snails are also considered a delicacy here and can work as a nice appetizer.
The 'Plat Principal' or main course varies from region to region. In Alsace, goose is the main bird, in Burgundy it is la dinde aux marrons - which is turkey stuffed with chestnuts. Parisians are fond of the foie gras and oysters which can be served as a fresh salad, or alternately can be cooked and served with champagne or caviar.
Other dishes like the coq au vin, which is a braised chicken dish that contains wine, mushrooms, potatoes, (and garlic in some cases) is also served.
Vol-au-vent which is a hollow puff pastry, is filled with toppings of choice. In this case, we have shown you a vol-au-vent with smoked salmon. Other proteins such as rabbit, quail, beef, fish, and pork may also be consumed.
Bûche de Noël is made with a soft sponge cake that is filled with frosting, rolled and covered in another layer of frosting that is then scoured with a warmed fork to create the bark-like effect. It is decorated with marzipan mistletoes, meringue mushrooms, and other edible Christmas symbols.
They also serve an assorted platter of 13 desserts to represent Jesus and the 12 Apostles. It includes - Le pain calendal a Christmas loaf, it's portion is offered to poor, biscotins, fruit paste candy, a nougat blanc, a nougat noir, calissons, pain d'Epices, kugelhopf, salted caramels, candied citron, fried bugnes, oreillettes, brioche, and fruit tarts.
During Epiphany, a cake made of puff pastry called La Galette des Rois is made. They are topped with a paper crown, and each cake contains a hidden bean, whoever finds that bean becomes the King or Queen for the day. It is also known as the 'three Kings Day' cake.

Carols and Plays

♦ Christmas carols were first introduced in France during the 15th century. Being a predominantly Catholic country, many of these songs are based on the Nativity scene and songs praising the Lord. A lot of these carols have later been translated into well-known English carols.
♦ These Carols include "Il Est Né, Le Divin Enfant", "Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle!" whose English version is "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella!"; "Le Petit Renne Au Nez Rouge".
Thisis a translation of the English carol "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; "Mon Beau Sapin" equivalent to the Christmas carol "O Christmas Tree" taken from the German carol "O Tannenbaum"; "Douce Nuit, Sainte Nuit" a translation of "Silent Night, Holy Night"; "Vive Le Vent" or "Jingle Bells", and "Petit Papa Noël" a hit Christmas song amongst others.
♦ Combining the Nativity scene and carols, liturgical dramas called "Mystère de la Nativite" or miracle plays, were performed. One of the most well-known plays was written in the 16th Century by Marguerite, the Queen of Navarre.
♦ Puppet shows are popular in Paris and Lyon, and one of the most famous ones, called Bethlehem 1933, was written by de Marynbourg.

Christmas Markets

♦ Christmas markets in France have their roots in Alsace. The influence comes from the bordering country of Germany, which is reflected in the architecture of the market stalls which are shaped like mountain chalets found in that country.
♦ The oldest of them all is the market of Strasbourg, which started in 1570 and is still present today.
♦ You will find everything from decorations, to trees, to artisan breads, cheeses, and wines, a wide array of pâtisseries, and you will also find them selling the famous santon figures amongst other items.
France is a potpourri of wonderful traditions and exciting customs that celebrates life and togetherness in a colorful, melodious, and highly delicious manner! So if you're in France or plan to visit soon, don't miss out on some of these amazing practices and events.