Here is everything you’ve always wanted to know about Christmas in France! Christmas in France is probably every Francophile’s dream. The foie gras, the bûche de Noël, the Champagne, the papillotes, the vin chaud, it’s easy to understand why the French call it the most wonderful time of the year.
And even if you cannot come to Paris this year, you can definitely recreate these French Christmas traditions right at home. Indeed, there is no better way to join the French Christmas cheer than adopting a few French Christmas traditions.
In this article you’ll learn about:
- How to wish someone Merry Christmas in French
- When exactly the French celebrate Christmas
- The traditional French Christmas meal
- How the French decorate their home for Christmas
- The most popular Christmas traditions in France
So let’s talk about Christmas in France and follow me on this cultural journey to find out more about the Holiday season in France, plus the French Christmas traditions.
1. French Christmas Greetings
To wish someone Merry Christmas in French, we say “Joyeux Noël”. However the French don’t wish “Joyeux Noël” to each other weeks in advance, we only say it a few days before Christmas. Also, Christmas cards are not very popular in France. Instead, cards are sent traditionally to celebrate the New Year.
To wish someone Happy New Year in French we say “Bonne Année“. It’s important never to wish anyone a “Bonne Année” before midnight on New Year’s Eve as this brings bad luck.
2. Christmas Eve Or Christmas Day
When do the French celebrate Christmas? If one day you’re invited over for a Christmas meal in France, the first thing to check is what day it is! Indeed, the Christmas meal could very much be on December 24th in the evening or December 25th. Even if the Christmas meal in France usually takes place on Christmas Eve (called “le réveillon de Noël“), today, many French families have their traditional Christmas meal on December 25th.
Historically, religious French people had their Christmas dinner on the 24th to stay up to go to the late Christmas mass. And today, a lot of French families still do – mass or no mass – hold the traditional Christmas meal on the 24th in the evening. Other French families prefer to celebrate Christmas on the 25th (which is a bank holiday) with a late lunch.
Also, some families (like mine) have two Christmas gatherings. The first meal on Christmas eve is a simpler meal only in small families. Then the second meal is a fancier Christmas meal on 25th with the extended family.
3. The Traditional French Christmas Meal
It’s no surprise that in France, the French Christmas meal is key to the holiday festivities. The table is set with lots of care, as setting a pretty table in France is part of our culture and tradition. It’s very important for the French to have their Christmas dining table looking extremely elegant and inviting. In my family, we used to set the Christmas table with luxury dinnerware, silverware, crystal glasses, and fine table decorations. The presentation of the meals will be also refined.
While many families do prepare their Christmas dinner at home, many others outsource the work to a traiteur (a caterer in English). Traiteurs in France usually offer special Christmas meals where each individual course is prepared and ready to heat and serve. Also, even if Christmas is usually celebrated at home, many French families do go out to a restaurant for Christmas. Indeed, in France, many restaurants are open for Christmas and do offer a special Christmas menu.
The French Christmas Menu
If you’ve heard about French people eating long and slowly, this dinner is the greatest example of this French custom. Indeed, this meal can go for up to six hours! And it does share a few characteristics that I’ve listed below.
First, the starters often consist of foie gras, smoked salmon, oysters, or escargots, and even caviar (from Petrossian) at the wealthiest tables. Starters are usually followed by a seafood gratin. Then, large poultry (a capon or a turkey) is usually served with chestnuts and a cardoon gratin. The traditional cheese plate follows the main and is often served with a green salad.
To finish the feast you will get the traditional Bûche de Noël which comes in two forms: pâtissière (with a genoise cake and buttercream) or glacée (ice cream-based cake). In my family, we prefer the second one, as it’s easier to eat a slice of ice cream than a rich cake when you’ve already been eating for two hours. Many French families finish the Christmas meal with a fruit salad or with fresh fruits.
Wines And Champagnes
There is no feast without excellent wines and Champagnes. Champagne is always served as an aperitif, before the starters. Then, the French make sure to pair meals and wines to create a balance between the dish and the characteristics of the wine. White wines are usually served with the starters: a Sauternes with the foie gras, a Sauvignon with the smoked salmon. Red wines like a Saint Emilion or Côte Rôtie is paired with the meat (capon or turkey). Then another red wine is served with the cheese plate (usually a Pinot Noir or a Bordeaux). Finally, the French usually finish their Christmas meal with a digestive (like the Eau-de-vie de Génépi).
4. French Christmas Decorations
Christmas Tree (Le Sapin De Noël)
According to the Catholic tradition, a Christmas tree should not be put up before Christmas Eve (on December 24th). And it should be taken down twelve days after Christmas (on the Epiphany). However, in reality, there is no fixed date. Indeed, most French households have their French Christmas tree set up by about the 15th of December (and even the 1st) and street decorations are usually up from the first Sunday of Advent. You can read my previous article on French Christmas tree ornaments to decorate your Christmas tree the French way.
The Nativity Scene (La Crèche)
One thing every French home has right under the Christmas tree is the crèche or Nativity scene. La crèche is part of the French Christmas decorations and is an important part of the French Catholic traditions. La crèche features many little figurines, also called santons in Provence, representing towns folks as they gather around the stable for the birth of baby Jesus.
Advent Wreaths (Les Couronnes De l’Avent)
Advent wreaths (Couronnes de l’Avent) are also common in France, they are made up of fir and pine tree branches for the first Sunday of Advent. They are traditionally knotted with beautiful red bows and decorated with pine or fir cones. Advent wreaths usually decorate a table or adorn the front door or windows of a house.
5. Christmas Traditions In France
Advent Calendars (Les Calendriers de l’Avent)
Advent calendars are a big deal in France. Each year, French chocolatiers and luxury French brands release even more beautiful advent calendars, elevating them to a must-have for cozy holiday decor. The offerings have extended beyond chocolates and French brands make excellent advent calendars filled with goodies from tea, beauty, and other high-end treats. It’s a great way to count the days until Christmas by opening one window per day through Christmas Eve.
Christmas Markets (Les Marchés de Noël)
Christmas markets are an important part of the French Christmas tradition. With small wooden châlet like stands selling all kinds of goods and delicacies, Christmas markets are a fun place to go Christmas shopping. In a traditional French Christmas market, you can find local arts and crafts, special Christmas food such as pain d’épice (gingerbread), regional delicacies, handmade clothing, or Christmas ornaments. Basically, everything you need to celebrate Christmas the French way.
My favorite Christmas market is the one on Les Champs Elysées: it really brings a Christmas vibe to the city. I love the one at Strasbourg as well, which is particularly renowned.
Christmas’ Presents (Les Cadeaux de Noël)
In France, we do not hang stockings on the fireplace around Christmas time. Indeed, we (or Santa) usually place Christmas gifts under the Christmas tree, or right next to it. Kids typically open their presents on the morning of Christmas Day, and adults after the Christmas meal (if you celebrate Christmas on the 25th). Also, it’s very common in France to give chocolate boxes and Champagne bottles as presents for Christmas. If you’re on the hunt for French Christmas gift ideas for the Francophile in your life, check out my Holiday French gift guides for her and for him.
One of my favorite treats that I love to eat at Christmas is the Papillotes! These are chocolates (or pates de fruits) wrapped in golden sparking paper with fringed ends. Inside there is usually a little note written on it. The papillotes were invented at the end of the 18th century by a confectioner named Papillot, who made chocolates and sweets in his shop in Lyon. He was inspired by his young apprentice who was sending stolen sweets wrapped in love letters to his sweetheart.
Nowadays, papillotes are a delicious French Christmas tradition that is sold in shops at the end of each year. You can use them also to decorate your Christmas table or you can give them to your loved ones for Christmas.
The Mulled Wine (Le Vin Chaud)
Mulled wine is very popular in France and in the winter you’ll find it everywhere: in bars, in French Christmas markets, in the streets. Also, this tipple is becoming a trendy seasonal beverage, perfect for fireside gatherings at home and apres-ski. Le vin chaud is very simple to prepare and the recipe can easily be doubled or tripled to serve a crowd. That is why I wanted to share my very traditional French mulled wine recipe with you.
Traditional French Vin Chaud Recipe
- Mix all the ingredients directly in a saucepan: wine, sugar, lemon and orange zest, cinnamon, star anise, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg.
- Heat until everything is simmering without boiling. Continue cooking at a simmer for 8 to 15 minutes, stirring gently from time to time. From 8 minutes start to taste and continue the infusion if you feel it doesn't taste enough. With all those spices, you should not exceed 15 minutes.
- Finally, when your mulled wine is spicy enough, you can filter your preparation and remove all the spices.
- Serve your mulled wine very hot in glasses and place an orange slice per glass.
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Bonjour! I’m Leonce, I’m French and I’m a Parisian expat currently living in the city center of Amsterdam (I previously lived in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, on the Ile-Saint-Louis). I created Leonce Chenal back in 2018 when I was living in London and missing my home country way too much. Because I truly believe you don’t have to be French or to live in France to experience the French art de vivre, Leonce Chenal is a French digital magazine to help you live your French life, wherever you are. Enjoy <3