Houses along a canal in Colmar decorated for Christmas

The holiday season in France is undeniably one of the most cherished times of the year. The festivities start in late November and continue until Epiphany on the 6th of January.

Signs of Christmas are visible throughout the country, from the detailed and beloved Crèche de Noël to the famous markets and glittering Christmas trees. It's a period to gather with loved ones, share special meals, and admire Christmas lights.

Below, we cover what to expect when you visit France during the festive season. Beyond the popular Christmas markets, you'll learn about the charming "Santons de Provence," the quaint clay figurines that are a hallmark of the south, what to expect on Christmas Eve and some of the enduring Christmas stories and traditions.

A nativity scene in a church in Triel-sur-Seine, France.

French Christmas traditions

Nativity Scenes in France

Central to the French Christmas celebration is the "Crèche de Noël" or the Nativity scene. Unlike the simple nativity sets you might be familiar with, the French version is a detailed 3D representation that includes the Holy Family, angels, Magi, animals, shepherds, and more.

These intricate scenes are prominently displayed in churches and even some homes. The tradition of the nativity scene has deep Catholic roots, initiated by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century.

In the south of France, particularly in Provence, the "Santons de Provence" are a beloved tradition. These hand-painted clay figurines represent various characters from the nativity story and the village of Provence.

Interestingly, this tradition originated during the French Revolution when churches were closed, leading to the creation of these figurines. There are 55 distinct characters in the original scene, each available for purchase, making them a popular collector's item.

Live nativity scenes, especially prevalent in the south, add a touch of realism to the celebrations. Often a part of the midnight mass, some towns even host these performances in the days leading up to Christmas.

The town of Baux de Provence, perched on a hill, is particularly known for this tradition, with the church's congregation actively participating.

The Advent Celebrations

Advent calendars, which trace their origins to Germany in the 1800s, have found immense popularity in France.

Initially marking the period from the 4th Sunday before Christmas, these calendars have become a favourite among both adults and children. In France, they can be quite elaborate, turning the countdown to Christmas into a delightful daily surprise.

While Advent wreaths, adorned with fir and pine branches and topped with four candles, were once a staple, their popularity has waned over the years. Traditionally, a candle was lit every Sunday leading up to Christmas. Today, these wreaths are more commonly found on tables rather than doors.

The Christmas tree and decorations at the Galeries Lafayette in Paris.

Christmas trees

But what's Christmas without a tree? The tradition of the Christmas tree, or "Sapin de Noël," has its roots in Alsace. The first recorded Christmas tree in Alsace dates back to 1521. However, it was only after the 1870 Franco-Prussian War that the tradition spread throughout France.

Initially, these trees were adorned with apples and cookies, symbolizing temptation and redemption. For Protestant households, the Christmas tree served as an alternative to the Catholic nativity scene.

The Tale of Saint Nicolas and Pere Fouettard

St. Nicolas was a generous 4th-century bishop from Myra, celebrated for his acts of kindness, especially towards children. His tradition of secret gift-giving laid the groundwork for many Christmas customs, including the hanging of stockings.

Alongside St. Nicolas is the contrasting figure of Père Fouettard, or Father Whipper. Originating as an innkeeper who committed a grievous act against three children, he was condemned by St. Nicolas to serve as his companion.

While St. Nicolas rewards the virtuous children, Père Fouettard is tasked with disciplining those who misbehave. This tradition is particularly cherished in the regions of Alsace and Lorraine. 

The French Father Christmas: Pere Noel

Pere Noel, the French counterpart of Father Christmas, has his own set of traditions. On Christmas Eve, he goes about gifting children. Unique to the French tradition, Pere Noel is accompanied by a donkey named Gui, which translates to Mistletoe.

Children leave carrots in their shoes for Gui, and in return, if they've been good throughout the year, they receive small gifts. However, with the globalization of Christmas traditions, the universal image of Santa Claus with his reindeer has overshadowed this quaint French custom.

Christmas lights in Strasbourg, France.

Christmas lights and Decorations

The festive season in France is illuminated with dazzling displays of Christmas lights, adorning streets, shops, and homes. Given that many French residents live in apartments, individual home decorations are less prevalent. 

Instead, the streets come alive with radiant lights, illuminating trees, major buildings, and entire neighbourhoods. Strings of lights drape gracefully across city centre streets, while neighbourhood lights often display festive messages or even the name of the neighbourhood itself. Public squares, too, bask in the glow of festive decorations.

The most iconic decorations line the Champs Elysees. The illumination of this grand avenue, which takes place on the second last Sunday in November, is a grand affair marked by performances and fireworks. There are also several other impressive light displays around the city during the Christmas season.

A standout event is the Fête des Lumières in Lyon. Originally a religious event to honour the Virgin Mary, it has transformed into a grand festival of lights. Every December, the city of Lyon bursts into a spectacle of light installations, projections, and displays, drawing visitors from around the world.

For four nights, buildings, streets, squares, and parks become the canvas for light artists, making it one of the most significant light festivals globally.

Decorated stalls at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France.

Christmas markets in France

The magic of Christmas in France is perhaps best encapsulated by its vibrant and bustling Christmas markets. These markets, held in towns and cities across the country, are a testament to the nation's rich traditions and its love for the festive season.

Typically, the markets open at the end of November and run until late December (often 26th December or even early January). They transform town squares and streets into winter wonderlands, adorned with twinkling lights and festive decorations.

These markets are a haven for those who appreciate artisanal goods and crafts. From handcrafted ornaments to unique gifts, there's something for everyone.

But it's not just about shopping; the food stalls are a major highlight. Offering seasonal specialties, they're the perfect spot to indulge in warm treats.

A food and wine stand at the Tuileries Christmas market in Paris.

What to eat at the Christmas markets:

  • Warm up with mulled wine or hot cider, popular throughout France.

  • Relish the hearty tartiflette, a delightful mix of potatoes, cheese, cream, and bacon.

  • Savour the taste (and smell) of roasted chestnuts, a classic winter treat.

  • Depending on the region, markets also offer a range of cakes, biscuits, cheeses, and meats.

  • And, of course, the ever-popular pretzels make for a perfect snack. 

Interesting Christmas markets

If you’re in Paris for Christmas, you’ll have several Christmas markets to choose from. Wooden chalets pop up across the city, offering everything from handcrafted gifts to traditional French holiday treats like vin chaud (hot wine) and roasted chestnuts.

The aroma of these delicacies fills the air, making a stroll through these markets a sensory delight.

The Provins Medieval Christmas Fair and Market is a unique experience. Located slightly east of Paris, Provins is a beautifully preserved town that recreates its historic medieval market during the second weekend of December.

With participants dressed in period costumes, it's a delightful blend of history and festivity. The town also hosts a medieval festival in June.

Alsace is renowned for its traditional Christmas markets, with Strasbourg boasting the oldest (since 1570) and largest market in France. Other notable markets in Alsace include those in Colmar, Kaysersberg, Ribeauville, and Turckheim. 

A bûche de noël or Yule log surrounded with Christmas decorations

Christmas Eve in France

Christmas Eve in France is a blend of rich traditions, religious observances and, of course, food.

While the significance of attending midnight mass has waned over the years, the essence of gathering with family for a grand feast remains a cherished tradition. Of course, modern families may choose to adapt or change these traditions in ways that suit them.

Historically, many French citizens identified as Catholic, and midnight mass was a significant event. Although fewer people attend these services today, they are still held throughout the country, preserving the spiritual essence of the holiday. 

Christmas Eve is synonymous with a lavish multi-course meal. Traditionally consumed before midnight mass, this feast is an opportunity for families to indulge in the finest foods, complemented by exquisite wines and champagne.

The table settings, often meticulously arranged, add to the festive ambience.

Red meat, a staple in many cuisines during festive occasions, is uncommon for Catholics on Christmas Eve as a form of fasting and reflection, leading up to the celebration of Christmas Day.

A bûche de noël or Yule log surrounded with Christmas decorations

Christmas Eve Dinner in France

Below is a typical menu for Christmas Eve dinner in France.

Starters

Typical starters include:

  •  Amuse-bouches/Canapés: These bite-sized treats, like salmon and crème fraîche on a blini, are a popular choice.

  • Foie Gras: A luxurious delicacy.

  • Snails (sometimes served on vol-au-vent for ease),

  • Seafood: Oysters, scallops (often baked), smoked salmon, and other shellfish

Main Course

The centrepiece is often a stuffed bird, be it turkey, cockerel, pheasant, goose, or wild game. The stuffing, a rich blend of bread, finely chopped vegetables, chestnuts, sausage meat or foie gras, and wine or cognac, is a highlight.

This is accompanied by an array of vegetable sides, including green beans, brussels sprouts, roasted carrots, potatoes, and of course, chestnuts.

Dessert

The meal concludes with sweet delights like the cold Yule log (bûche de Noël), chocolate truffles, candied chestnuts, and regional specialities.

A traditional platter of the 13 desserts of Christmas.

Regional traditions

Provence

Known for the '13 desserts of Christmas', symbolizing Jesus and the 12 apostles. Traditionally served post-midnight mass, this buffet-style spread includes dried fruits, nuts, sweetened bread, fresh seasonal fruits, marzipan treats, and nougat.

The foods can vary, but the number is always the same. The food is traditionally set out on Christmas Eve and remains on the table for three days until 27 December.

Alsace

The region is known for its food, and there's a lot to eat around Christmas. Start with pain d'épices (gingerbread loaf), Linzer torte, mannele (brioche shaped like a snowman), bredalas (Christmas cookies), and kegelhopf (a morning Bundt cake).

Brittany

Here, buckwheat crepes with cream are a post-midnight mass treat. The region also has its version of the bûche de Noël, made of galettes layered with apple sauce and caramel.

Alps

Unique traditions from the Alps include a torch procession of skiers, lantern-carrying to midnight mass, and burning juniper branches for New Year prosperity.

New Year fireworks display over the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France

New Year's Eve in France

The French usher in the New Year ( Réveillon du Nouvel An or Réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre) with grandeur and style. If you're searching for a special New Year's Eve dinner, look for "menu de la Saint-Sylvestre" at restaurants.

Many restaurants offer special menus for the occasion, and parties are held across country to bid adieu to the old year and welcome the new.

In Paris, the Arc de Triomphe is the centre of fireworks and light projections and the Champs Élysées is closed to cars and filled with people enjoying the show. While the iconic Eiffel Tower might not be the centre of fireworks displays in recent years, it's still very impressive to watch.

Interestingly, while the French might not be big on sending Christmas cards or frequently wishing "Merry Christmas," they do exchange greetings after the New Year. Be it through cards, text messages, or calls, it's customary to send wishes anytime before January 31st.

A Galette des Rois (or king cake) with a crown and figurine

Epiphany and the King Cake

Marking the end of the holiday season, Epiphany is traditionally a religious observance, celebrating the revelation of God incarnate as Jesus Christ and the visitation of the Magi.

The King Cake – or Galette des Rois - is the highlight of the celebration. The round cake made of puff pastry is typically filled with almond cream. Modern variations include fillings like apple or chocolate. Hidden inside is a small bean or figurine.

The youngest person, often hiding under the table, decides who gets which slice of the cake. The lucky individual who finds the bean becomes the king or queen for the day, donning a crown.

Tradition dictates that they are responsible for bringing another galette, extending the festivities for just a little bit longer.

In Provence, the cake takes on a different form. The Brioche des Rois is infused with orange blossom and adorned with candied fruit.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 18 December 2023

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